The U.S. Supreme Court announced Thursday it will hear an Illinois case that could have huge ramifications for public unions.
An Illinois government employee and the state’s largest union for public workers were pushed to the forefront of a nationwide fight for the future of labor and political influence when the U.S. Supreme Court announced the addition of Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to its docket.
Justices will decide whether public workers can be mandated to pay union fees. A ruling against AFSCME could be a death knell for public unions, and cause a huge shift in political power structures.
Through his position with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, Mark Janus could, like the vast majority of his co-workers, join AFSCME Council 31, but doesn’t want to.
Under state law, Janus can opt out of membership and is exempt from paying union dues that support AFSCME’s robust political activities, but he is nonetheless required to pay the union “fair-share fees” – a fee to cover AFSCME’s collective bargaining efforts.
Unions say the fees account for workers like Janus’s “fair share” because regardless of whether or not he’s in the union, Janus is covered by the wages, benefits and work conditions that make up the collective bargaining agreement AFSCME secures. Without requiring such fees, unions say employees who opt out of membership would be freeloading off of dues-paying members.
Lifting the mandate could purge union ranks, diminishing the union’s substantial political influence and ultimately that of Democrats, labor’s traditional ally.
Janus – who is backed by Gov. Bruce Rauner and a powerful, well-funded free-market network – argues that being forced to pay money to a union he doesn’t support is a violation of his right to free speech.
Rauner, a Republican, says he believes Janus will prevail.
A similar case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, landed in a 4-4 deadlock last year when the Supreme Court didn’t have a full bench following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Given his conservative record, it’s widely believed that Scalia’s replacement, Justice Neil Gorsuch, will be the tiebreaker.
Rauner, who says he has met with Janus several times and called him a “good man,” says current law is “fundamentally unconstitutional.” He says the “abuse of government unions” in Illinois has been “extensive” and has led to many of the state’s financial struggles.
“When government unions can finance politicians … they in turn negotiate with … it’s a fundamental conflict of interest,” Rauner said Thursday.
AFSCME characterized the legal effort as “blatantly political,” and says overturning the legal precedent set in 1977 by a unanimous decision in a case known as Abood will cause both political and economic turmoil.
AFSCME says that unions help to lift the standard of living and economic conditions for all workers, whether unionized or not, and in the public and private sectors alike.
“The forces behind this case know that by joining together in strong unions, working people have the voice they need to level the economic and political playing field,” Illinois’ AFSCME President Roberta Lynch said in a statement. “Billionaires like Bruce Rauner are trying to rig the rules to take more power and influence for themselves.”
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