US Supreme Court hears oral arguments in labor case centered on Illinois state worker

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
February 26, 2018

US Supreme Court hears oral arguments in labor case centered on Illinois state worker

Springfield native Mark Janus saw his case come before the U.S. Supreme Court for oral arguments Feb. 26.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Feb. 26 in one of the most important labor cases in decades.

The Illinois-based case, Janus v. AFSCME, challenges current law that deprives government workers of basic constitutional rights.

Mark Janus is a child support specialist for the state of Illinois who has to pay fees to a union regardless of whether he agrees with the way the union is representing him, or whether he agrees with the union’s policies or politics.

That’s because since the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, government workers have been forced to make an unfair choice: Pay fees to a union, or lose one’s job.

One focus during oral arguments Feb. 26 was the political nature of the collective bargaining process itself – which is funded by these compulsory union fees – and whether this makes forced fees unconstitutional compelled speech.

The discussion touched on the impact of the collective bargaining process on wages, overtime costs and more as a matter of public concern, implying it is political in nature. In other words, forcing government workers to fund collective bargaining compels them to engage in speech against their will – and that violates their constitutional rights.

Janus v. AFSCME is a First Amendment case. It is about restoring worker freedom and giving government workers a choice over where their hard-earned money goes.

And contrary to arguments made by some unions, a positive result for worker freedom will change nothing when it comes to the collective bargaining process.

Janus is about worker freedom

The First Amendment guarantees everyone the right to choose which organizations to join or fund. But current Illinois law – as well as laws in 21 other states – prevents some workers from exercising that right.

In the Abood case, the Supreme Court ruled that public employees such as Janus, who decline full union membership, could still be forced to pay for union representation, regardless of whether the worker wants to be represented by the union. Since then, government workers in Illinois have been forced to pay union fees as a condition of their employment.

But if the Supreme Court rules in Janus’ favor, every government employee across the country will have the right to exercise the freedoms of association and of political expression the First Amendment guarantees – and to choose for himself or herself whether to give money to a union.

A decision restoring worker freedom changes nothing in the collective bargaining process

If Janus wins, it does not signal the end of government-worker unions in Illinois. Nothing would change in the collective bargaining process between government employers and government-worker unions. A Janus victory would alter none of Illinois’ collective bargaining laws governing negotiations, contracts or strikes. Specifically, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Janus:

  • Unions will still represent their members at the bargaining table.
  • Unions will still bargain over wages, hours and other conditions of employment.
  • Unions will still be able to go on strike as permitted by state law.
  • Unions will still represent workers in grievances against their employers.

And government workers will still be able to choose union membership. In fact, every current union member would remain a member after Janus. Under Illinois law, a union member must take the affirmative step of opting out of the union to cancel his or her union membership.

These facts undermine union leaders’ claims that a decision for the plaintiff in Janus will upend collective bargaining in the public sector.

A decision in Janus v. AFSCME is expected before the end of June.

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