Workers won on Wednesday. So, too, did advocates of free speech.
By ruling in favor of Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, the U.S. Supreme Court righted a 41-year-old wrong by ending the practice of forced union fees and restoring First Amendment rights to more than 5 million workers across 22 U.S. states.
The 5-4 decision in Janus vs. AFSCME overturns a legal precedent set in 1977 in Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education, when the country’s highest court somehow said that states could lawfully compel taxpayer-funded public employees to turn part of their paychecks over to unions they weren’t a part of and didn’t agree with.
That 1977 decision is in direct conflict with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees Americans certain liberties, including the freedom of speech and religion and the right to peaceably assemble. The right to assemble has been broadly interpreted to include the rights of Americans to associate with whomever they want. That also includes the rights of Americans to not associate with those whom they don’t want.
For the past 10 years, $45 a month has been withheld from Janus’ paycheck and turned over to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, Illinois’ largest public employee union and a political organization that participates in electioneering.
Janus didn’t want to pay it, but to keep his job he had to because of the Abood decision.
Janus doesn’t support AFSCME or its political activities, but the union claims it’s his “fair share” to pay for the collective bargaining done on his behalf.
But collective bargaining is a sort of politicking in itself. AFSCME Council 31 has been engaged in a contract dispute with Gov. Bruce Rauner for three years. AFSCME is seeking salary hikes and other benefits that would cost Illinois taxpayers more than $3 billion over the life of a new four-year contract.
Illinois has more than $8 billion in unpaid bills and its public pension systems are underfunded by more than $130 billion — worst in the country. The state also has the highest combined local and state taxes in the United States.
Janus doesn’t believe the state or its taxpayers can afford the union’s demands, so he doesn’t support AFSCME’s collective bargaining position. He’s been forced to fund it anyway.
In short, Mark Janus has been forced to associate with a political organization he wants no part of, a clear violation of his First Amendment rights.
“Abood did not appreciate the very different First Amendment question that arises when a state requires its employees to pay agency fees,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the court’s majority opinion. And the Abood decision did not “understand the inherently political nature of public-sector bargaining.”
Later, Alito added: “The First Amendment is violated when money is taken from nonconsenting employees for a public-sector union; employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them.”
Thanks to Wednesday’s decision, Mark Janus and 5 million other union workers in 22 states without right-to-work laws had their First Amendment rights restored.
Unions claim that the Janus case is a conspiracy by wealthy, far right-wingers to diminish their power. If Janus and others like him choose not to pay union agency fees, the unions themselves stand to lose a substantial amount of money.
That very well may be, but it’s a red herring.
Supreme Court decisions have consequences, and partially defunding unions might be one consequence of the outcome of Janus vs. AFSCME. But that has nothing to do with the legal argument at the heart of the case.
“This is the biggest victory for workers’ rights in a generation,” Janus attorney Jacob Huebert, with the Illinois-based Liberty Justice Center, said. “The First Amendment guarantees each of us, as individuals, the right to choose which groups we will and won’t support with our money. Today the Supreme Court recognized that no one should be forced to give up that right just to be allowed to work in government.”
Janus was right. And thanks to his courage, millions of workers’ rights have been restored.
Dan McCaleb is editor of Watchdog.org. He is a veteran editor and has worked in journalism for more than 25 years. Most recently, McCaleb served as editorial director of Shaw Media and the top editor of the award-winning Northwest Herald in suburban Chicago.
A version of this Op-Ed previously appeared on Watchdog.org under the headline “Op-Ed: 40 years later, Supreme Court finally gets forced union dues decision right.”
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