US Supreme Court to hear arguments in landmark labor case, Janus v. AFSCME

US Supreme Court to hear arguments in landmark labor case, Janus v. AFSCME

For the last four decades, millions of government workers across the nation have faced an unfair decision: Pay fees to a union, or lose your job. But Janus v. AFSCME could restore government workers' constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Feb. 26 in Janus v. AFSCME, one of the most important labor cases in recent history.

For the last four decades, government workers have been forced to make an unfair choice: Pay fees to a union, or lose your job.

Those fees must be paid regardless of whether the worker agrees with the way the union is representing him, or whether he agrees with the union’s policies or politics.

But the Janus case could change that.

Filed by Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the state of Illinois, the case challenges current law that deprives government workers of basic constitutional rights. The court’s decision is expected before the end of June.

Union leaders have argued that a decision in Janus’ favor will hurt government-worker unions. But that’s not what this case is about.

Janus is about finally giving workers a choice and restoring their First Amendment rights. It does not mean the end of government-worker unions. In fact, there will be no changes at all to collective bargaining processes.

Janus means restoring First Amendment rights to government workers

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 its 1977 decision Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 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.

Janus does not mean the end of government-worker unions

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.

In fact, union leaders’ handwringing over the potential outcome in Janus is more of an admission. If union leaders sincerely believe current members will walk out the second the fee obligation is removed, perhaps union leaders suspect unions aren’t satisfying their members in the first place.

Union leaders are overlooking a potential positive outcome if Janus wins his case: It could spur union improvement. If unions have to prove themselves to earn workers’ loyalty, they will be forced to provide more value to workers. The resulting betterment in union service and performance should enhance their appeal to workers.

And if union leaders’ fears come to pass and unhappy members head for the exits, that’s all the more reason for the Supreme Court to grant the relief Janus requests. Workers should not be forced to pay a private organization that is not representing their interests.

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