5 years after Janus v. AFSCME, unions are smaller but more militant

5 years after Janus v. AFSCME, unions are smaller but more militant

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Illinois state worker Mark Janus in 2018 gave government workers the ability to stop funding government union politics. Chastened unions could have reformed. Instead, they got extreme.

Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that government workers cannot be forced to fund the political agendas of union bosses.

In their 5-4 ruling on June 27, 2018, the justices declared forced union fees violated the First Amendment rights of Mark Janus and other government workers. The high court concluded workers were free to choose whether to pay the unions in their workplaces. 

Janus worked for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services helping children caught up in their parents’ divorce. To keep his job, he was forced to pay thousands to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.

“The union’s fight is not my fight,” Janus said. “For years it supported politicians who put the state into its current budget and pension crises. … That’s not public service.”

Janus was represented by the Illinois Policy Institute’s litigation partner, the Liberty Justice Center, as well as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. Their work ended over 40 years of forced government union payments.

Public sector union membership in Illinois has fallen by at least 8.5% as a result of workers being given a choice, according to documents filed with the U.S. Department of Labor by the six largest government unions in Illinois. At least 36,418 fewer state and local government workers pay dues or fees to unions since the Janus decision.

Most major government unions in Illinois are seeing their numbers drop. Only SEIU HCII can claim an increase in raw numbers, but it negotiates for 91,000 workers across four states and its own documents show at least one-third of those workers have chosen not to be union members.

Teachers unions – the Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers – lost a combined 9.4% of their members or fee payers.

And AFSCME Council 31 – the union Janus sued – saw an 18.5% drop in membership.

This membership loss means about $25 million stayed in Illinois workers’ paychecks and didn’t flow to government union coffers in 2022. But unions have partially offset losses by increasing dues on their remaining members.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers has over 16,000 fewer members and fee payers than it did in 2017, yet the union took in over $600,000 more in dues and fees in 2022 than it did in 2017, according to reports it filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.

And even though the U.S. Supreme Court essentially took away their forced fees because of their intense politicking, the unions are every bit as political as ever – maybe more so.

Former Chicago Teachers Union employee and current Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson was heavily backed by teachers unions in his mayoral bid, including nearly $2.3 million from his bosses at CTU. His win means CTU next year will negotiate a new contract with the boss they picked.

Money for politics, but not for members: CTU spent just 19 cents of every dollar in 2021 on representing members, according to its own report. The rest of the cash went to fund politics, overhead and other union leadership priorities. 

Declining ranks have also forced unions to find backdoor methods to preserve power. In November 2022, Illinois voters barely passed a new amendment that grants government unions power and authority that trumps state law, all under the oversimplified guise of “protecting collective bargaining as a fundamental right.” 

This amendment expanded bargaining to encompass broad, ill-defined terms such as “economic welfare” and “safety at work.” Now that government union bosses know it can pass, unions in other states – Pennsylvania and California, so far – are copying the tactics.

These post-Janus moves reveal a pattern: Unions are broadening their demands beyond compensation and working conditions to advance their political and social agendas. 

For example, the Boston Teachers Union has pushed for “housing justice,” and the Oakland Education Association in California went on strike over climate change demands. Even in Chicago, CTU bosses attempted to negotiate an affordable housing provision into their contract. 

Public sector unions’ desperate search for influence demonstrates they’re dedicated to using their political power to push their agendas, even at the expense of their remaining members’ interests. The Janus ruling did not end the influence of unions, but it did push them deeper into social militancy and away from working for workers.

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