Supreme Court

Monday's Big Supreme Court Case Will Decide the Future of Public Sector Unions

Janus v. AFSCME could end mandatory union dues payment. Counter-intuitively, it might strengthen the labor movement.



Mark Janus remembers getting his first pay check from the Illinois Department of Public Health, where he works as a bookkeeper, and wondering about the $50 fee deducted to pay dues to a union he'd never agreed to join.

More than a decade later, the disagreement over that fee has brought Janus before the U.S. Supreme Court, as the plaintiff in a case that could change the landscape of public sector unionism in the United States. The high court will hear oral arguments in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) on Monday morning. Janus and his attorneys are asking the court to overturn a previous decision and "declare [mandatory public sector union] fees unconstitutional."

Over the years, Janus estimates, he's contributed more than $6,000 to the union—all against his will. Even so, he says it's not about the lost money.

"It's about my rights," Janus told Reason. "My right to say 'no' is at least as important as my right to say 'yes.'"

A ruling in Janus' favor could end the automatic deduction of union dues from millions of public employees' paychecks, forcing unions like AFSCME to convince workers to voluntarily contribute dues—something workers would do, presumably, only if they have a reason to do so. Janus says he does not see any benefits from being a member of his union, but he wants other workers to have the chance to decide for themselves.

Public employee unions have more than 7 million members, and the automatic dues payments are a reliable source of revenue for the powerful, and often political, entities. The AFL-CIO, a coalition of private- and public-sector unions, organized protests on Saturday against Janus' case. In a statement, the AFL-CIO warns that a victory for Janus would "rig the system even more against working people by taking away their freedom to have strong unions."

The unions are trying to protect a precedent set by the Supreme Court in 1977. That case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, upheld mandatory union fees on the grounds that non-payers would become "free riders" who could benefit from collective bargaining activities without contributing towards the associated costs. More to the point, unions are trying to preserve their ability to collect revenue without consent—something no other private institution can do.

Ben Johnson, a former head of the Vermont chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, believes public sector unions actually have been hurt by Abood and the decades-long gravy train it inaugurated.

Johnson, who has submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in favor of Janus, recalls a poll that was commissioned by AFT during his time as a union official, asking non-members why they had not joined the union. The most common answer? Because no one had asked them.

"The agency fee is such a core model of the business model of unions that you don't even have to bother asking people to join up," Johnson told Reason. "These are membership-based organizations, for a hundred years they lived or died by membership, and they don't even bother to ask people to join."

Losing at the Supreme Court—and losing automatic dues payments—might actually strengthen the labor movement by forcing unions to change how they operate, he says.

Monday's oral arguments will be the second chance for most members of the current court to hear about the mandatory dues issue. In many ways, Janus is best thought of as a sequel to Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a 2016 Supreme Court case. That case ended in a 4–4 draw after Justice Antonin Scalia's sudden death left the Court with an even number of conservative and liberal members.

For obvious reasons, that means all eyes in this case will be fixed on the newest justice, Neil Gorsuch. Attorneys representing Janus tell Reason that there is not much in Gorsuch's legal history that gives a clear indication of his perspective going into the case. More generally, though, the conservative Gorsuch's originalist views suggest he may be skeptical of the union's side of the case.

Read more Reason coverage of today's big case.

John Stossel on the potential to extend "right to work" to public sector employees.

Damon Root on the First Amendment aspects of the case.

Scott Shackford on the Trump administration's Department of Justice reversing it's stance on mandatory union dues.

Eugene Volokh and Alicia Hickok debating the merits of the case.

And check out a conversation between Nick Gillespie and Mark Janus on the Reason podcast.

NEXT: Brickbat: Feel Safe

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  1. As a private sector union member, I despise the idea of public sector unions.

    1. Imagine if, at your workplace, your union negotiated its contract with an employer who is eager to have your union’s approval, political contributions and get out the vote labor. You’d have the best contracts ever.

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  2. “These are membership-based organizations, for a hundred years they lived or died by membership, and they don’t even bother to ask people to join.”

    But why bother asking those ignorant baboons? They wouldn’t know what a good thibg they’re getting in return if it hit them in h their head!

    “Choice”. Bah, humbug!

    1. “…forcing unions like AFSCME to convince workers to voluntarily contribute dues?something workers would do, presumably, only if they have a reason to do so.”

      “Nice house ya’ got there. Be a shame if sumtin’ were to happen to it.”

  3. Government sector labor unions should never have been allowed to exist at all to begin with.

    There is no competition to keep them in line.

    Money is forcibly extracted from the taxpayers to pay for overpriced salaries and benefits for government workers (many in make work useless jobs) that practically no one in the private sector gets. That taxpayer money then is used by the unions to buy politicians enacting ever more handouts to unionized government workers. Rinse and repeat and the cycle goes on unabated.

    1. This is why public sector unions are ten times worse than regular unions. Once the government job is all forced union, the only question is how much taxpayer dollars can they get away with wasting. Only cuts to their budget can reign in their outrageous pay and benefits and they all make sure politicians never cut budgets.

  4. Janus does not see any benefit in belonging to a union?
    Go take a look at the wages, pensions, vacations, and healthcare benefits a non-union bookkeeper earns.

    These people whining about paying union dues never seem willing to forego the benefits a collective bargaining agreement provides them.
    If he was that upset about paying union dues why didn’t he quit and go to work for a job-union company?

    1. If union-lovers are so whiny about employees not wanting to be forced to pay dues they don’t want, why don’t those union-lovers quit.

      Imagine have employees that are union and non-union at the same government job.

      The age of the union power is over.

      1. Why should they quit? They have a good thing going. The ROI on their union dues is a higher than market rate wages and benefits.

        1. Then there is no need to compel them.

        2. Why should the people that don’t want to be forced to be union quit then?

          Its much better to take their case to the SCOTUS and have the unions gutted for being corrupt lefty tools.

        3. If unions did only their job of negotiating, kept costs down to a minimum, and did not get involved in politics, I would accept this argument, Jimoxe. However, unions spend a large fraction of their money on politics, mostly to keep their own power.

          That is the core of this case. When someone can be compelled to pay you and your sole purpose is to perpetuate your job, you have unrestricted, absolute power. As any child knows. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

          I’ve seen entire plants hobbled by union self-aggrandizement. Fixing a minor leak in a non-union plant can normally be done in seconds (Tighten a valve fitting). However, in a union plant, it takes hours, as operators are not allowed to touch fittings. That’s a maintenance job. An engineer is not allowed to turn a valve, so actions that require one person 30 seconds takes two people 10 minutes.

    2. Furthermore, if wages in the private sector are far lower than union public bookkeepers than that means that the free market signals for what a bookkeeper should make are being ignored by public sector employees and they are ripping off the taxpayers.

      1. Don’t blame the unions for this. They’ll take whatever management is willing to give.
        Blame the idiot negotiators on the government side of the table who negotiate these sweetheart deals and expect the taxpayers to pick up the tab.

        1. Unions don’t take scraps. They would strike. They would violently block citizens accessing government services to get their way.

          We all know that unions contribute to big government types, so it never really comes to that. The politicians get union money. The politicians appoint receptive government managers to give unions more money and benefits than their free market peers. The politicians create rules to force every employee to give to the unions.

          Round and round it goes.

    3. Maybe he has integrity? Maybe he likes his job but would prefer to negotiate his own benefits? Maybe he would like to plan his own days off instead of being beholden to the whims of those with “superiority”?

      1. The other point that is often left out of these union discussions is that unions strangle the employer on easy firing methodology. This distorts the workplace so bad employees keep their jobs and good employees are pressured to not work so hard as to make the bad workers look bad.

        1. Seriously. Why bother working any harder than you need to in order to not get fired? There’s nothing in it for you.

    4. Money paid for political lobbying, advertising and avocation of leftists ideas provides no collective bargaining benefit.

    5. If the union is so awesome then they shouldn’t need to use the point of a gun to compel membership.

      Further, union ‘benefits’ are one size fits none.

      An expensive health benefit is a waste on me. I want that extra 10,000 it costs in wages. Oh sorry, can’t do that union contract.

      I demonstrated my excellence and commitment to going above and beyond what is expected of me. I’d like a raise. Sorry can’t do it, union contract specifies pay is based on seniority.

      I want more/less vacation/PTO time in exchange for less/more wage. (This one is important for me. I LOVE time off. I get 26 days and use every hour of it…I won’t accept less than 20 days…oh and non-union). Sorry time off is based on seniority.

      I get that business is slow, but I work ten times harder than so and so, but you are letting me go. Oh sorry can’t do that, inion contract says layoffs are based on seniority.

      1. Unions do not see themselves as being able to function except as enforced monopolies. The worker has to sell his labor through the union. They have something of a point, but this a problem when government is the employer, even more so than t he private sector.

      2. If you don’t like the terms and conditions of your collective bargaining agreement, then work to change them.
        Attend the next contract proposal meeting and point out exactly what you’d like to change; be it the seniority language or merit pay.
        Then convince your fellow members these changes would be in their best intrest.

        1. He doesn’t want to be a member. Why work through a group you don’t want to be a member. There’s no constitutional basis to force someone into a union for taking a job.

        2. And that works? My dad, both my Grandpa’s, my uncle, my brother are all/were u in, and every single one tells about how union bosses ignored the local workers will. Especially when it came time to negotiate contracts. Or when the unions forced strikes in “solidarity” but the local chapter wasn’t upset with their contract, and the strike was really about a chapter across the country, who were negotiating with a different company.

    6. That’s rather irrelevant constitutionally, so I don’t know why he makes the statement. Just because someone does something to benefit you does not mean they can demand payment.

      “I held the door open for you at the store, that’ll be $0.25.”

      1. Had a bum at El Pollo Loco keep holding the door open for people.

        Someone paid him a buck

        So it does work.

    7. So if slaves enjoyed better material standard of living than free sharecroppers (which they did), then slavery is good, and the slaves shouldn’t whine about it?

  5. American Federation of State/Cnty/Munic Employees union gave $1,626,622 to Hillary’s campaign in 2016.
    Open (page 3)

    The Democrats will be hardest hit and they know it.

  6. Losing at the Supreme Court?and losing automatic dues payments?might actually strengthen the labor movement by forcing unions to change how they operate, he says.

    LOL good one. Pay no attention to their freaking out and whipping up their goons for nationwide protests.

    1. He is right, tbough. A union where members choose to pay will be a more potent force then one where they must pay. It wont be as nice for the leadership, who want their perks with none of the benefits.

      1. None of effort. God i am tired today.

        1. The use of “benefits” may have derived from fatigue, but the use of “then” seems to derive from lousy education.

          1. Christ, what an asshole.

          2. Well, I did go to a public school run by public union teachers…

          3. “Reverend” my ass.

      2. Not if lots of members drop out.

    2. “Losing at the Supreme Court?and losing automatic dues payments?might actually strengthen the labor movement by forcing unions to change how they operate.”

      By having to spend their money on union issues rather than on buying Democrats into office?

  7. Janus seems just another stale-thinking freeloader.

    Even if he wins this case, he can’t win, because conservatives’ preferences — from race to religion, abortion to doobies, treatment of gays to treatment of women — seem destined to continue to be crushed by American progress forged by our great liberal-libertarian alliance.

    1. Hi Mary Stack at 8113 Sun Meadows Court, Fort Worth, TX 76123!

      1. Come on, DD. You’re too good of a person to be doxing someone.

        Call the SWAT team instead.

      2. Come on, DD. You’re too good of a person to be doxing someone.

        Call the SWAT team instead.

    2. Janus seems just another stale-thinking freeloader.

      The union could always look to simply not support the “Free-loader”.

      Not sure why it is MY responsibility to protect a union from “freeloeaders” though? That seems to be, specifically, a union issue.

      1. And it seems the unions do a pretty good job of protecting freeloaders. It seems to be a common complaint that unions protect workers that should be fired !police unions anyone?).

    3. This made me lulz. Apparently some people only notice the freeloader phenomenon when it comes to taxpayer-extracted mandatory union dues. In taxpayer-extracted welfare payments, for example, it’s heartless and probably racist to bring it up.

      1. This. The left likes freeloading…except when they don’t. The principle by which they decide when it’s ok is beyond me. I have the same confusion with the left and their stance toward federal income taxes. The rich need to pay their fair share!!!1!!… but wait I’m a rich lefty blue stater, hands off my state and local tax deduction, waaaah, freeloading red staters waaah!!!!

    4. Re: Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland,

      Janus seems just another stale-thinking freeloader.

      There’s no justification for such assessment. If it were true that union membership confers great advantages for the worker, then voluntary membership would be the norm. The involuntary nature of dues extraction serves to obviate such consideration, whether the person does indeed receive some benefit from this involuntary exchange or not. Forcing a person to an exchange is no better than forcing a person’s property from his or her hands, as the person is not given the opportunity to value the exchange ex ante. Both participants have to benefit from the exchange for it to be fair and moral.

    5. “Reverend” my ass.

  8. It would be a major shake up on the political scene. Public Unions provide so little for their average member, most will jump at the chance to get that part of their pay check back. The unions will have to go through massive changes to survive, and that doesn’t look good for politicians pocket books.

  9. Crossing my fingers on this, for my dad. He had to play dues to the teachers union for over forty years. A union to which is was not a member. A union which had a local boss that had never seen the inside of a classroom. A union with regularly contributed to political candidates and causes by dad disagreed with.

    My dad, by the way, came from a staunch union family. He would sometimes choose a product simply due to the union label. But unions were to provide a bargaining voice for blue collar labor in the traditional workplace where they did not have bargaining power. They were not meant for government jobs for white collar labor.

  10. The first amendment guarantees freedom of association. Not forced association. Let Freedom Ring!

    1. Freedom of association, but not freedom of dissociation. Any one who dissociates is free to associate and must be forced to do so!


  11. You wouldn’t want gas stations colluding to raise the price of gas.

    Why would you want labor unions colluding?

  12. It’s telling how people are describing a ruling in favor of Mr. Janus as undermining collective bargaining itself. One, it’s such a false/lazy argument, but it also show the degree to which unions are incredibly weak without compelling behavior from the unwilling. They’re scared shitless that people will flee in droves if it’s their choice.

  13. Shouldn’t this be an issue of contract? Janus had no contract agreement with the union, so the union was stealing his money.

    1. that would be a logical conclusion, but logic has nothing to do with progressive politics or it’s soldiers in the Free Shit Army

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  15. This is why public sector unions are ten times worse than regular unions. Once the government job is all forced union, the only question is how much taxpayer dollars can they get away with wasting. Only cuts to their budget can reign in their outrageous pay and benefits and they all make sure politicians never cut budgets.

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