Public sector unions are defiant in the wake of Janus Supreme Court decision
August 3, 2018

Photo courtesy AFSCME
Despite the United States Supreme Court’s anti-union Janus decision, AFSCME vows to keep fighting for worker rights and benefits.

By Igor Studenkov

The United States Supreme Court on June 27 ruled 5-4 that public sector labor unions cannot charge fees to non-union members, hurting their ability to raise money for their operations and lobbying.

The unions have long contended that, given that the contracts they negotiated benefited all government employees within their workplaces—union or otherwise—it made sense to have the non-union employees pitch in.

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and other supporters of what eventually became the Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 case argued it was a question of freedom of speech. Unions use the funds they collect in dues and fees for, among other things, political lobbying and donations, and plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that requiring non-union members to support financially candidates and causes they may not believe in violated their First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court decision is expected to affect unions’ ability to raise funds. That, in turn, would affect their ability to negotiate contracts and could potentially reduce workers’ wages and benefits, which would hurt the government agencies’ ability to attract employees and reduce the property tax and sales tax revenue the public sector employees generate. Legislation might help mitigate those effects, and the unions representing public employees in Chicago and Illinois as a whole are determined not to go down without a fight.

Under current federal law, many aspects of the public employee union contracts are decided on the state level. Before the Janus decision, 22 states, including Illinois, had rules requiring non-union public sector employees to contribute an equivalent portion of the union dues.

In the 1977 Adood v. Detroit Board of Education case, the Supreme Court ruled the fees were legal, so long as the money from them was not used for political activities.

Local impact

American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 (AFSCME Council 31) represents a significant portion of public sector employees throughout Illinois and in this community. Its members include employees in school and library districts, prisons, certain State government departments, and various County and City governments.

When Bruce Rauner ran for governor, he cited “union bosses” as one of the factors behind the State’s economic and political woes. In early February 2015, only four months after he was elected, he issued an executive order banning fee collection from non-union members. Knowing the move would face legal challenges, he also filed a lawsuit against ASFCME Council 31 to challenge the fees’ constitutionality. While the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled Rauner lacked standing to bring the lawsuit, several non-union public sector employees joined in, and jurists allowed the case to continue with them as plaintiffs.

The “Janus” portion of the case’s name came from one of those plaintiffs, Illinois child support specialist Mark Janus. St. Clair County circuit judge Chris Kolker halted Rauner’s executive order while the case made its way through the courts.

The lawsuit earned support from several right-wing organizations, including the National Right to Work Foundation, the Illinois Policy Institute, and Liberty Justice Center.

The majority decision written by Justice Samuel Alito agreed with the free speech argument and found the earlier Adood v. Detroit Board of Education decision unconstitutional.

Rauner applauded the ruling as a “major victory for public sector workers’ First Amendment rights to free speech and association and a victory for taxpayers who must bear the high cost of government.” He also argued the decision would help eliminate what he described as “conflicts of interest” that, he alleged, are inherent when public sector unions help elect officials with whom they negotiate contracts.

“For decades, Illinois workers have been forced to pay partial union dues against their will,” Rauner stated. “The practice infringed on the constitutional rights of public sector workers who were asked to give up their First Amendment rights as a condition of employment. This decision fairly reinstates those rights.”

Rauner went on to argue that the decision will save non-union workers money thanks to the fees they would no longer have to pay. He touted the ruling’s impact on other states where non-union workers must pay fees, stating the decision brought “this important issue to its rightful conclusion.”

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey had a differing view, noting that, “In Chicago, where union jobs have been the pathway to the middle class for women and Black and Latinx families, the attack on public employees is both sexist and racist.”

Sharkey went on to say that the Janus decision “will hit all working families hard; in Chicago it will disproportionately hurt Black and Latinx households already reeling from the foreclosure crisis, cuts to social services, school closures, unrelenting violence, and high unemployment.”

Less union membership

Robert Bruno, professor and program director of Labor Education Programs at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told Gazette Chicago that he expects around an 8% drop in nationwide public sector union membership over the next three years. This reduction will hurt the unions in ways that go far beyond political influence.

“Both the loss of the fair share fees and the additional drops of union membership will reduce the amount of resources the unions have,” he said, noting unions “will have less revenue to represent workers, hire staff, offer education, do training, and negotiate contracts.”

With less money, unions will need to make “hard decisions” about cutting staff, and without staff
to do research, the unions’ ability to negotiate contracts will suffer, he added. “One of the things collective bargaining does is it enables all those individual workers to operate in some degrees of comparable power with their employer. When you have that, you’re more likely to get contracts that are more favorable.”

Bruno went on to explain that this shift already has affected unions in “right to work” states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and Indiana, which did away with the fees requirement in recent years.

“The final impact is [that] the contract they will negotiate will not be as good and it will result in workers earning less,” he said. “There will be a reduction of hourly, average annual earning of public sector workers. And then they’re paying less in taxes, and that will be change in amount of revenue generated back in the state.”

When asked whether anything could be done to counteract the effects he was describing, Bruno said Alito’s ruling actually included some examples of just that. Illinois could take cues from California and New York, which passed laws requiring non-union public employees who want to file grievances
to pay the fees. The two states also passed laws requiring that all public sector employees receive orientation on the benefits of joining the union, which Bruno said has had an impact by driving up union membership.

Without such a law on the books, unions must provide orientation on their own time and in their own space, which presents greater challenges in reaching out to potential members. Prior to such laws, unions seldom had “any orientation time unless an employer agreed to that,” Bruno said. “And a lot of employers didn’t want to do that.”

Bruno expects groups that supported the Janus lawsuit and “right to work” legislation in general would support any legal challenge against these kinds of laws.

Photo courtesy SEIU Local 73
SEIU Local 73 members rally outside the State of Illinois Thompson center. The union strongly opposes to the Janus decision.

Unions still fighting

In the meantime, the public sector unions in Illinois have taken a defiant posture, stating that, even though the Janus ruling hurt them, they were determined to keep fighting.

AFSCME Council 31 executive director Roberta Lynch described the lawsuit as a “blatant political attack by Bruce Rauner and other wealthy interests on the freedom of working people to form strong unions.

“We are extremely disappointed the Supreme Court has taken the side of the powerful few, but we’re more determined than ever to keep our union strong, standing up for public services and the working people who provide them,” she stated.

Stephen Mittons, a child protection investigator with the Cook County Department of Children and Family Services and a vice president of AFSCME Council 31 Local 2081, said, “No court case will prevent us from standing together in our union and speaking up for ourselves, our families, and our communities.”

Service Employees International Union Local 73 (SEIU Local 73) is a public service employees union representing workers in City Colleges of Chicago and the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, University of Illinois system, and Illinois Secretary of State’s office, among others.

Dian Palmer, the union’s co-trustee, said their priority remains outreach to union members.

“We are already having a conversation with our members to inoculate them against what the [opposition groups] are trying to do—to get them to opt out,” she said. “I’ve got to tell you, the members are here with us, they’re understanding that we’re in this together, and no court decision is going to separate us and weaken our power.”

Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7 President Kevin Graham stated that because his union provides so many benefits to members, he too does not believe many members will opt out of paying union dues.

“Our members need representation for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that we provide legal defense in an era in which accusing the police of misconduct is a cottage industry,” Graham said. “We will continue to aggressively represent our members.”

Palmer argued that, given his wealth, Rauner could not possibly know what workers really wanted—and that he made no effort to find out.

“He has no idea what it’s like not to make ends meet, what it’s like to need childcare,” she said. “I can’t imagine why someone who had that much money and that much influence would want to harm somebody through his policies.”

Palmer said that, as someone who grew up in the rural South, she appreciated the power unions have to give voice to those who otherwise have no leverage.

The American dream

The union gave her and others a “piece of the American dream, where I can have opportunities for life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” she said. “My voice by itself was drowned out by people with money and influence.”

Palmer said the Supreme Court decision most likely will hurt her union but that it will not stop it from fighting for its members.

“I can’t stop,” she said. “I can’t go back to the life that I had when I was in the South, with nothing but dirt roads and cotton to pick. I’ve come too far.”

Shantel Boston, a crossing guard and SEIU Local 73 member, said she actually voted for Rauner because she liked his message of cleaning up political corruption and improving the State economy.

“But I didn’t think I would be affected in a negative way,” she said. “And now, he has to remember that the ones who are affected [by the Janus ruling] are people who voted for him.”

Boston said she and her co-workers are on the job no matter what the weather is, providing a vital service for Chicagoans and visitors to the city, especially children, elderly, and the disabled.

While she likes her job, she said she has to have enough money to live on, too. If the City of Chicago had its way, she said, she and her co-workers would not have seen any salary increases in the past 12 years, which is why Boston is grateful to her union.

“They are the reason why we’re able to go and negotiate better wages and increase in benefits, so it helps us maintain our homes, take care of our families,” she said.

Boston said that, given Rauner’s role in the Janus lawsuit, not only would she not vote for him again but she would encourage others to vote him out.

Roy Chavadiyil, senior radiology technologist at Stroger Hospital and SEIU Local 73 member, said his workplace pays employees less than private entities such as the nearby University of Illinois Hospital and Rush University Medical Center, and it traditionally argued that pensions and generous benefits make up for the shortfall in pay. In recent years however, he said, those benefits have been eroding, as the County has been offering new employees less generous pensions and reducing benefits.

Chavadiyil said he personally saw instances when potential employees decided against working for the hospital once they saw the benefits package. Undercutting those benefits further, he argued, would make the situation worse for everyone.

“It will affect performance” of people working at Stroger Hospital, Chavadiyil said—“how the patients are treated, and it’s going to affect productivity too,” Chavadiyil said. “You have to attract more people, who have more credibility and experience. Now the County is reducing wages, and you’re not going to attract people who have experience and education.”

That said, he felt that, at least in the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, the Janus decision actually has encouraged more people to join the union. Hospital employees already are unhappy with the management, and the non-union members want to get as much leverage as they can.

Chavadiyil believes unions can recover strength by unionizing the private sector industries. “Eventually, people will get organized in the private sector, and they will emerge a winner,” Chavadiyil said. “But it will take more time and more resources to do it.”

For AFSCME Council 31, log on to www.afscme31.org. Log on to www.ctunet.com for the Chicago Teachers Union. The Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7 can be reached at www.chicagofop.org. For SEIU Local 73, log on to seiu73.org.