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How An Illinois Man Is Trying To Change Federal Union Laws

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case on Monday that could drastically change labor unions in Illinois and across the country.

At the center of the case is who has to pay union fees. Springfield resident Mark Janus is a state worker at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Service. The union AFSCME represents about 75,000 state workers, but Janus is not one of them. That’s because he opted out. Yet, he still has to pay one of the union fees, known as the “fair share” fee, which goes towards things like negotiating safety issues and how conflict is resolved in the workplace.

Dr. Bob Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who directs the school’s labor education program, joined WBEZ host Lisa Labuz to explain the core legal argument and what’s at stake.

Dr. Bob Bruno is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The plaintiff argues the fees violate the First Amendment

Bob Bruno: Mark Janus has argued that any payment that he's required to make for any services that the union provides is essentially a form of political speech, which is prohibited under the First Amendment. And therefore, any payment that he makes is a violation and should be prohibited by law because it violates his free speech that he isn't freely choosing to make this payment. He's not necessarily controlling what he views as the political efforts, or the political speech on behalf of the union, and says it should be prohibited under the law. 

The ability of unions to bargain on employees’ behalf is at stake

Bruno: What's at stake, quite frankly, is the capacity of public sector unions all over the country to protect and represent their members and to bargain on their behalf. So the implications for millions of working people are pretty dramatic. The union provides an extensive amount of very pragmatic workplace-related services that have nothing to do at all with political lobbying or electoral efforts, but are simply grounded in the minutiae of the work day. 

None of these kinds of issues in any way raise a First Amendment question. They are simply distinct from lobbying or giving money to political candidates, which since 1977, there is an exemption under the law that says unions cannot require any kind of payment from a non-union member for political activity.

So Janus has never had to make a contribution towards any kind of speech that he would oppose. But he has been required, under the current law, to make a contribution towards the economic benefits and the day-to-day workplace minutiae that the union bargains with the employer. 

The court’s decision could be monumental

Bruno: Given the appointment of Neil Gorsuch and the way the Supreme Court actually ruled in a previous case that came up one year prior, the thought was that there’s now five members — a majority — on the court that is prepared to overturn the 1977 decision, which was called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, that actually established the right of unions to collect a fair share payment to prevent workers from free riding.

So I think the betting money is that the court's going to overturn the law and do some serious damage to the ability of workers to have a voice in educational settings, in state government, local, and municipal agencies. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.

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