Illinois Supreme Court: Janus vs Goliath

Mark Janus received his first lessons about public service while growing up in Springfield as a member of the Boy Scouts. His dedication would eventually lead to him becoming an Eagle Scout. Today, he passes along his knowledge and wisdom to young men and women from the state capital in Springfield, while leading scouting trips to Florida.

Janus’ public service isn’t limited to merit badges and camping trips. It also involves his career with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services (DHFS). Because of his dedication to public service, Janus now finds himself at the center of a historic case in the U.S. Supreme Court that may affect millions of union workers like him, as oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME begins Monday, Feb. 26.

Let’s break down what’s involved in this case and why this case matters:

  • In his position with DHFS, he helps children stuck in the middle of divorce proceedings involving their parents. In order to keep his position, he has had to pay thousands of dollars in fees in the form of union dues to one of the largest, most powerful political actors in the State of Illinois: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
  • Janus has stated that AFSCME doesn’t operate to his standards of service, citing that “the union’s fight is not my fight.”
  • AFSCME has a reputation of supporting politicians—mostly Democrat—that have caused the state’s current budget and pension fund crises, dating back to 2001, where Janus describes this as “not public service.”
  • The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the freedoms of speech and association, but Janus and many workers like him argue that, despite many years of compulsory association with unions, their interests are not represented.

Janus v. AFSCME challenges a precedent set in 1977 via Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which allowed state and local governments to force—that’s right, force—employees to pay money to unions as a condition of employment. More than half of U.S. states have already outlawed such union practices, but millions of government employees across 22 states are still faced with an unethical choice: pay the union or lose your job.

The Supreme Court has almost overturned the 1977 decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but was derailed by to a 4-4 deadlock. A 5-4 decision in favor would have stripped the power away from unions, but due to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, the case and issue have gone unresolved until now.

Janus is well represented via the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Liberty Justice Center in this case. A Janus victory would end compulsory union enrollment and dues for all government workers across the country.

Union officials, including that of AFSCME, have criticized workers like Janus as “free riders” by not wanting to fund the cost of union representation in the collective bargaining process, in which Janus offers a simple response: “Let me out.” Janus notes having successfully negotiating his own salary and benefits at previous job positions before working for the State of Illinois and says, “I’d be more than happy to do so again.”

AFSCME argues that state law requires the union to provide representation to government workers like Janus, but failed to mention it was the state’s largest government labor unions themselves (the Illinois Education Association, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois chapter of the AFL-CIO) that wrote those laws. One of these bills was signed at a union event in September 1983 by then-Republican Gov. James R. Thompson.

The solution to this self-imposed problem is quite simple: legally allow workers to negotiate their own salaries and benefits. Unfortunately, such radical idea is enraging AFSCME representatives that would rather silence people like Janus, stating they have no right to be heard at the bargaining table.

Janus doesn’t view himself as deserving of such attention. “I just look at it as an average guy standing up for his own rights of free speech,” Janus said. “I don’t look at it like I’m anybody special or anybody extraordinary.” But say what he will, we and the millions of Americans this case may affect will look on with intense interest. Let us hope that freedom of association wins the day.