The state of Illinois is in a financial mess; every resident owes $11,000 for $150 billion in unfunded public pension liabilities. The state’s credit rating has been downgraded to just a step above “junk.” On top of that, they also have a nearly $9 billion in unpaid bills.
But for state child support specialist Mark Janus, the salt in the wound is the stance taken by the public union he is forced to pay dues to under state law, something he hopes will change as the plaintiff in the United States Supreme Court case Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). A decision is expected in the upcoming weeks.
As one of the keynote speakers at the Washington Policy Center’s Solution Summit in Bellevue May 22, Janus told attendees that as Illinois’ bills kept piling up “I just kept seeing the public sector unions asking for more and more and more. What was quite interesting was the fact that our current governor tried to be a little more reasonable and suggests we can’t afford this – the union went out and started holding rallies and started advocating for more money.”
In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that public workers can’t be forced to join unions. However, the ruling did state that they can be required to pay union dues, also known as “agency fees,” for collective bargaining. Illinois is one of 22 states, Washington included, with “closed shop” laws on the books that require private and public-sector employees at unionized companies pay these “agency fees” in order to keep their jobs.
Janus said that wasn’t the case when he first went to work for the government in the 1980s. “Then I went back to work for the state. When I got my first paycheck, I saw this line item as a deduction and it said ‘unions’. And I said, ‘Oh didn’t sign up to join the union. I didn’t sign a pledge card. Why do I have to pay a fee just to work for state government and to have this job?”
However, he added that he didn’t press the issue at the time. It was only after watching the state’s financial condition deteriorate that “I got tired of paying the fee. I kept seeing what was happening in Illinois” and the unions “advocating for benefits and wage increases that the state cannot afford. They look at me as a bank, that’s all.”
He added: “I’m not anti-union. I believe if unions…want to collectively bargain, they should have that right, but I also feel if you do not want to join…you should also have that right.”
The issue comes down to free speech as articulated in the First Amendment, he said. Because public unions are fundamentally a part of government, giving them money is a form of political speech. The unions also advocate for public policies members may not agree with, he added.
“That’s (the First Amendment) not a suggestion folks, that’s a contract,” he said. “I don’t have that right, and so do about five million public sector workers. They’re forced to pay this fee.”
However, it’s not entirely clear what the political ramifications will be if the Supreme Court rules in his favor. One of the summit attendees was State Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-6), who called the issue “one of the most important political and civil rights issues of our time.”
He asked: “What happens the day after Janus if we do win, and what are the next steps?”
“We really don’t know yet,” Janus replied.
WPC Center for Worker Rights Director Erin Shannon said one potential outcome is that public sector unions better represent their members both during collective bargaining as well as public policy advocacy.
States such as Washington have already taken preemptive action to mitigate Janus. A third of all Minnesota union members are in the public sector; there, they have automatic enrollment. Workers who don’t want to pay the dues must opt out during the same seven-day period each year.
It’s similar to a law passed this year by the Washington state legislature creating an affirmative opt-out policy for workers who don’t want to pay union dues. Another law requires public employers to let unions hold private meetings with newly hired employees for at least 30 minutes; the meetings are entirely voluntary, but employers are not allowed to share that fact with their employees.
Despite these political tactics, Janus says it’s a far cry from tactics employed by unions 30-40 years ago. “It could get ugly, but so far has not,” he said.
Also, the ruling will only affect public sector workers, he said. “That’s the point that we continue to make over and over and over, but when you listen to the unions they say that if we win this case we’re going to kill every union across the United States.”