Thousands of government workers exercise rights in the year after landmark Janus case

Mailee Smith

Staff Attorney and Director of Labor Policy

Mailee Smith
/ Labor
June 27, 2019

Thousands of government workers exercise rights in the year after landmark Janus case

This is the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling government employees cannot be forced to pay a union. In that year, about 20,000 workers from just three of Illinois’ public-sector unions have said “no” to union membership.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled one year ago that forced union fees violate the First Amendment rights of public-sector employees.

Since the Janus v. AFSCME decision on June 27, 2018, government employees across the nation have exercised their rights to refrain from associating with or financially supporting the unions that represent their workplaces. They decided the unions too often fail to represent their interests, whether that be reflecting their political values or delivering value for the fees paid.

Illinois, where the Janus case originated, shows the decision’s effect. About 20,000 government employees from just three unions within months exercised their freedom to stop paying union dues and fees.

Take AFSCME Council 31, the state affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME Council 31’s federal filings indicate more than 8,000 workers stopped paying dues and fees in 2018. That’s a 12% drop from the number of workers paying dues or fees in 2017.

Then there is the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Its federal filings indicate more than 6,800 teachers have stopped paying money to the union. That’s a 6.7% drop from 2017.

The Illinois Education Association – the state affiliate of the National Education Association and Illinois’ largest teachers’ union – hasn’t reported its post-Janus membership numbers yet. Preliminary estimates based on their federal reports indicate more than 5,100 teachers have stopped paying dues or fees to the union.

While data is still being collected, these initial reports mean around 20,000 government employees from just three of Illinois’ public-sector unions quickly said “no” to union membership shortly after they were given the choice.

Workers’ reasons for rejecting union membership are varied, and often very personal. But union transparency – and specifically how a union spends money – is a hot-button issue for many workers.

And it’s no wonder.

The public-sector unions in Illinois – and their national counterparts – have a track record of spending more on politics and themselves than they do on representing their members.

Once again, look at AFSCME Council 31. In 2018, just 17 cents of every $1 it spent was on “representational activities,” according to its federal filing. In the five preceding years, it averaged just 20 cents of every $1.

Likewise, just 17% of the AFSCME national headquarters’ spending in 2018 was on representing workers.

Illinois Education Association fared even worse. From 2013-2018, it spent just 13 cents of every $1 on representing workers, according to its federal filings. The National Education Association spent even less – just 12 cents of every $1.

And the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers spent just 25 cents and 22 cents of every $1, respectively, on representing workers.

To place this in perspective, the Wise Giving Alliance, a project of the Better Business Bureau, maintains a nonprofit should spend at least 65% of its total expenses on program activities. While the Wise Giving Alliance tracks spending by charities, it stands to reason that unions’ minimal spending on representation should alarm members.

If unions spend so little on representation – which is supposed to be their core purpose – where does the rest of the money go?

To overhead, politics and other leadership priorities.

In fact, the Illinois Education Association and the National Education Association both spent far more on the benefits and salaries of their own officers and employees – for tasks unrelated to representation – than they spent on representing their members in 2013-2018.

The 20,000 workers who already said “no” to union membership in Illinois are just the start. Workers from other unions and other states are also choosing to keep their hard-earned money instead of sending it to unions, which value politics and leadership over rank-and-file members.

And as more workers learn how the unions spend their dues, it is likely the number wanting to keep that money in their own pockets will rise.

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