By Austin Berg
Mark Janus learned about public service from a young age, growing up as a Boy Scout in Springfield, Illinois. He eventually became an Eagle Scout. And he’s passed along his knowledge to young men and women from the state’s capital while leading Scouting trips to Florida.
But Janus’ public service doesn’t end with merit badges and camping trips. It extends to his career. And it’s because of this that he now finds himself at the center of a historic Supreme Court case with implications for millions of workers like him.
In his job at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, Janus works to help children caught up in their parents’ divorce.
But in order to keep that job, he’s had to pay thousands of dollars in fees to one of the most powerful political actors in Illinois: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
AFSCME doesn’t operate according to Janus’ standards of service.
“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.”
His lawsuit, Janus v. AFSCME, challenges a 1977 precedent – Abood v. Detroit Board of Education – that has allowed state and local governments to force employees to pay money to unions. Millions of government employees in 22 states must pay fees to a union whether they want to or not.
The Supreme Court has signaled it may be ready to overturn Abood. In fact, it nearly did just that in the 2015 case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, where California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs sued the teachers union at her school for collecting fees in violation of her First Amendment rights.
But the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016 led to a 4-4 split decision in Friedrichs. And the issue went unresolved in the nation’s highest court – until now.
The Supreme Court agreed to take up Janus v. AFSCME on Sept. 28.
“I brought this case on behalf of all government employees who also wanted to serve their community or their state without having to pay a union first,” Janus said.
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Liberty Justice Center, the litigation partner of the Illinois Policy Institute, are representing Janus in his case.
A Janus victory would end forced fees for government workers nationwide. Those workers – teachers, police officers, firefighters and more – who do not want to support a union would no longer be required to do so in order to keep their jobs.
More than half of U.S. states have already outlawed this practice.
But union officials have criticized workers like Janus as “free riders” for not wanting to fund the cost of union representation in collective bargaining.
Janus has a simple answer for those critics: “Let me out.”
“I’ve negotiated my own salary and benefits at plenty of jobs before I started working for the state,” he said. “And I’d be more than happy to do so again.”
Despite the gravity of his case, Janus doesn’t see himself as deserving 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.”
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of association. But Janus and many like him argue they’ve endured years of mandated association with unions that don’t represent their interests.
Now they’ll wait and see whether the Supreme Court agrees.