An Illinois state worker’s fight against forced union dues is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could change labor law across the country.
In a decision announced Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in Janus vs. AFSCME, which challenges a 40-year-old precedent that has allowed state and local governments to require their employees to pay a portion of their salaries to a union whether they want to or not.
The plaintiff, Mark Janus, is a child support specialist for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. He fights for kids who get caught up in custody disputes or who otherwise need an advocate outside of their families. As a non-salaried state employee, Janus was forced to pay fees to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union as his “fair share,” as unions call it, for collective bargaining. He didn’t realize it until he received his first paycheck and noticed a portion of his salary went to AFSCME.
Janus and his attorneys filed suit, claiming the requirement violates his First Amendment rights.
“I’m thrilled that they picked it up because I think this is a long overdue issue that needs to be raised because of the free speech and the free association,” Janus said. “I’m forced to associate with a union that doesn’t agree with what I agree with in some cases. Again, it’s not that I’m anti-union. I just think we need to rethink some of this and where these political areas are going because they provide money to elect candidates and then these candidates are negotiating contracts for benefits and salaries.”
One of his attorneys, Jacob Huebert, director of litigation at the Liberty Justice Center, said he was pleased the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take the case.
“People shouldn’t be forced to surrender their First Amendment right to decide for themselves what organizations they support just because they decide to work for the state, their local government or a public school,” Jacob Huebert, director of litigation at the Liberty Justice Center, which is representing Janus, said. “Right now, public sector employees in Illinois and many other states aren’t given a choice: They’re automatically forced to give their money to a union.”
If the Supreme Court rules in Janus’ favor, an estimated 5.5 million government workers in 22 states without right-to-work laws, including Illinois, would be able to opt out of paying union fees.
“With the Supreme Court agreeing to hear the Janus case, we are now one step closer to freeing over 5 million public sector teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other employees from the injustice of being forced to subsidize a union as a condition of working for their own government,” National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation President Mark Mix said in a statement.
National Right to Work Foundation staff attorneys also are representing Janus.
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who when he first took office supported an effort similar to Janus’, said the issue is about public employees’ freedom of speech rights.
“No person should be forced to give up a portion of their pay each month to fund public sector union activity against their will,” Rauner said in a statement. “It’s a fundamental violation of their First Amendment right to free speech and association. I am hopeful the Court will see it that way in the end.”
The Buckeye Institute in Ohio filed an amicus brief in support of Janus’ case. In a statement, its president said he was confident Janus would win.
“We are pleased that the Supreme Court will take up this crucial case to protect the First Amendment rights of public employees,” said Robert Alt, president and CEO of The Buckeye Institute. “Forcing employees to pay for speech with which they disagree and forcing them to pay fees to a union in order to keep their jobs is unjust and unconstitutional. We are confident that Mr. Janus will prevail and that the court will rule in favor of the First Amendment rights of all public employees.”
Janus’ case follows a similar case out of California, Friedrichs vs. the California Teachers Association. Rebecca Friedrichs, a school teacher, also was forced to pay dues to a union she didn’t want to be a part of. She also filed suit arguing her First Amendment rights were being violated, and her case also made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. But conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died before the issue was resolved. After Scalia’s death, the court deadlocked 4-4.
Since then, President Donald Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch, also a conservative, replaced Scalia on the bench.
A call to AFSCME Council 31 seeking comment was not immediately returned.
Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME national, called the lawsuit a political attack against unions.
“This case is yet another example of corporate interests using their power and influence to launch a political attack on working people and rig the rules of the economy in their own favor,” Saunders said in a statement. “When working people are able to join strong unions, they have the strength in numbers they need to fight for the freedoms they deserve, like access to quality health care, retirement security and time off work to care for a loved one. The merits of the case, and 40 years of Supreme Court precedent and sound law, are on our side. We look forward to the Supreme Court honoring its earlier rulings.”
Four Pennsylvania teachers filed a similar federal lawsuit earlier this year. They and the Fairness Center also filed an amicus brief supporting Janus.
“My constitutional rights do not end when I set foot in the classroom,” Greg Hartnett, an art teacher who was among the four to file suit in Pennsylvania, said. “I should not be forced to fund a private, politically-active organization just to do what I love. A favorable Supreme Court ruling in Janus would likely free me – and thousands of other Pennsylvania schoolteachers – from this union bullying.”
Janus said if the Supreme Court sides with him, hopefully it will lead to public employee unions refocusing on what’s important – such as safety, charity, or expanding on community service – rather than politics.
“I would think that they would concentrate more and get away from the political arena, such as electing candidates and slamming this candidate versus that candidate or that public office holder over another public office holder,” he said.
The Supreme Court could hear arguments as early as February and render a decision by next summer.