First Circuit Rejects Professor’s First Amendment Challenge to Public Sector Bargaining

The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has twice held that a public employer does not violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution when it authorizes a union to serve as the exclusive representative in collective bargaining for employees in a designated bargaining unit. Reisman v. Associated Facs. Of the Univ. of Me., 939 F.3d 409 (1st Cir. 2019); D’Agostino v. Baker, 812 F.3d 240 (1st Cir. 2016). Consistent with that precedent, on February 14, 2023, the First Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision dismissing a First Amendment claim brought by a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth in Peltz-Steele v. UMASS Faculty Fed’n, Local 1895 Am. Fed’n of Teachers, AFL-CIO et. al,  No. 22-1466.

The plaintiff is a professor at the UMass Dartmouth School of Law. He had declined to join the union that was certified to represent members of the UMass Dartmouth faculty . Following financial losses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university engaged in negotiations with the union regarding potential staffing and/or salary cuts. Ultimately, the parties reached an agreement in 2020 that implemented a progressive pay reduction in exchange for a promise that no bargaining unit employees would be terminated until July 1, 2021. That agreement, combined with a separate reduction in law school research funding, resulted in the plaintiff’s income being reduced by twelve percent.

The plaintiff then filed a lawsuit alleging that the union, the university president, the Massachusetts Attorney General, and the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board had violated his First Amendment rights by making the Union his exclusive representative in the negotiation process, despite his not being a member of the Union. He sought a declaratory judgment that the exclusive representation provided for in the collective bargaining law, G.L. chapter 150E, compels speech and association in violation of the First Amendment as well as an order enjoining the defendants from enforcing or giving effect to certain of its provisions. When a judge of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts granted defendants’ motion to dismiss, plaintiff appealed.

The First Circuit concluded that this case was controlled by two prior decisions of the court which had held that exclusive bargaining representation by a democratically selected union does not violate the right of free association that is held by employees represented by the bargaining unit who choose not to become union members. The court reasoned that the Massachusetts statute is similar to the Maine law at issue in one of its prior decisions because both authorize an exclusive bargaining representative to bargain only on behalf of the bargaining unit and not on behalf of an individual employee independent of the unit itself. Second, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s assertion that its prior decision failed to consider key aspects of the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees, 138 S. Ct. 2448 (2018). That case held that the First Amendment prohibits a union’s mandatory assessment of agency fees on non-union members. The First Circuit noted that Janus did not involve, and therefore did not decide, a challenge to exclusive bargaining in the public sector.

The Peltz-Steele decision underscores the premise that public sector unions can negotiate  on behalf of all the employees represented by the bargaining unit without offending the First Amendment rights of non-members. If you have any questions about the content of this update, please contact us. We are pleased to assist public sector employers in all matters related to collective bargaining.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.