On July 27, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) that public employees do not have to pay union dues as a condition of employment. In the years since, a Network of policy organizations across the country has been working to inform workers of their rights, defend workers in court, and advance labor reforms that strengthen employee freedom.
These efforts have given hundreds thousands of public employees a voice and choice when it comes to union membership.
Background: What was the Janus decision?
Unions are organizations that work on behalf of their members to advance common interests, including better pay and working conditions. Before the 2018 Janus decision, public employees were required to join their union and pay union dues and fees in order to work. Opting out of union membership wasn’t an option.
While many public employees are happy with their union and will gladly contribute a portion of their paycheck to support the union’s activities, not all employees feel their union best represent their interests.
One of those employees was Mark Janus, a child support specialist who worked for Health Care & Family Services in Illinois. Mark’s union often supported political causes and activities that did not align with his beliefs. However, because of the union’s policies, Mark was forced to pay dues.
With the help of the Liberty Justice Center, Mark filed a lawsuit, and the case made it all the way to the US Supreme Court. In the case, Janus vs. AFSCME, the US Supreme Court restored the First Amendment rights of millions of public sector employees—giving them a voice and a choice when it comes to union membership. The decision will force unions to better represent workers and their interests in order to prevent membership decline.
Informing Workers About their Rights to Opt-Out of Union Membership
The Janus decision was just the beginning of the campaign to give workers the freedom to choose union membership. Millions of public employees were still in the dark about their restored right to leave their union if they so choose.
A Network of state and local policy organizations—committed to improving the lives of the people in their communities—launched campaigns to educate workers about their constitutional right to opt-out of union membership.
Americans for Fair Treatment, The Buckeye Institute, Commonwealth Foundation, Empire Center, Freedom Foundation, Liberty Justice Center, Mackinac Center, and many more were involved in educating workers about their rights post-Janus.
- On the day the decision came down, June 27, 2018, The Buckeye Institute launched its Workers Choose campaign, which included a website—WorkersChoose.org—to help public-sector workers leave government unions and multiple printed mailers and emails that were sent to every member of a government union in Ohio.
- The Freedom Foundation mobilized canvassers who have visited tens of thousands of public employees in their homes and workplaces to inform them of their constitutional rights. The Foundation has also been using direct mail, email, news releases, media outreach to inform workers of their rights.
- In New York, the Empire Center organized and executed direct outreach efforts with public employees and helped employers better understand their rights and obligations under labor law. Empire also engaged in strategic partnerships with other groups, like the Government Justice Center and Americans for Fair Treatment.
- For decades, the Mackinac Center in Michigan has championed right-to-work both in the private and public sector. Three months prior to the Janus decision, Mackinac laid the groundwork to educate government workers on their rights by launching the My Pay My Say project and fortified its efforts following the decision, working in 22 states across the country. On the day of the decision, not only was Mackinac’s amicus brief cited in Janus, but Mackinac immediately contacted three million public employees about their rights and implemented its multi-million-dollar advertising campaign. The Center also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Politico and USA Today following the decision.
- Americans for Fair Treatment (AFFT), an organization that offers educational materials and a free membership program to current and former public-sector employees, has helped public employees across the country navigate life outside the union. Their members have written op-eds and provided public testimony in support of legislation that protects worker freedom. They’ve also created online communities for their colleagues to connect and learn about union alternatives and resources to protect their rights in the workplace.
Defending Workers in Court When Unions Fail to Recognize Worker Rights
For many workers, leaving their union is a difficult endeavor. Although the Janus decision affirmed a worker’s right to leave their union, unions don’t always notify employees about that right, leaving many in the dark.
What’s more, unions will sometimes use questionable tactics at times to prevent employees from exercising their right to leave the union. For example, some unions would only process opt-outs during an arbitrary, union-established two-week annual window. Other unions would challenge employees opt-out requests by ignoring the request outright or filing lawsuits against those requests. To help workers exercise their right to opt-out, several organizations in the Network used litigation to defend these workers in court.
- The Buckeye Institute’s Legal Center—working independently and with Freedom Foundation, National Right to Work, and Liberty Justice Center—has helped public employees across Ohio leave government unions, recover wages illegally taken from workers’ paychecks, and fight unconstitutional opt-out windows. In every case filed, the government unions have settled, or Buckeye’s clients were successful in court.
- The Buckeye Institute won the first major post-Janus victories for public employees, with unions in Maine and Minnesota recognizing their members’ right to stop paying dues immediately.
- The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation is representing a teacher in Rhode Island who was denied tenure for not joining a union, which is a clear violation of Janus. In another case out of New Jersey, the Mackinac Center is awaiting a decision from the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in a case that could decide whether or not people can resign from their unions at any time.
Advancing Worker Freedom through the Statehouse
In addition to securing worker rights through the courts, the Network has also been engaged in the legislative process—encouraging state and local leaders to pass legislation that secures worker rights.
- The Mackinac Center’s Workers for Opportunity project has worked with groups across the country to drive nationwide efforts to enforce the Janus decision by passing reforms that would require workers to expressly opt-in to union membership, otherwise they are no longer members. Michigan successfully enacted opt-in through their Civil Service Commission in 2020.
- The Mackinac Center’s Workers for Opportunity project equipped the Indiana Legislature to pass opt-in reform and strengthened it in 2022.
- In 2022, thanks to the efforts of the Beacon Center, Tennessee enshrined right-to-work in the state’s constitution. Right-to-work laws state no person should have to join a union or pay union dues in order to have or keep a job.
- In 2022, Arizona became the first state to pass a policy that prohibits release time—a union practice where taxpayers pay for a public employee to do work for the union rather than their day job. For years, the Goldwater Institute pursued this reform and found the nation-wide practice occurs at all levels of government and costs taxpayers millions each year.
- In 2023, Arkansas and Florida, thanks to efforts of The James Madison Institute, Mackinac Center, Freedom Foundation, and other national organizations, passed paycheck protection laws that prohibit the government from automatically deducting union dues from workers’ paychecks—making it so workers must explicitly consent to membership and have their dues taken directly from the union.
- In 2023, the Commonwealth Foundation worked closely with Americans for Fair Treatment during to help lawmakers pass four bills in the Pennsylvania House Labor and Industry Committee to protect teachers, first responders, and other public-sector workers from abuse by government union officials and expand union democracy.
- Also in Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation continues to advance policies that would directly extend freedoms for public employees against their union executives—including union democracy or recertification election, a requirement that unions run for periodic re-election to retain their status as workers’ representative. Commonwealth is also there to stop bad policy from being adopted—including an initiative to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution and permit collective bargaining agreements to supersede countless state laws.
The Network Has Helped Hundreds of Thousands of Workers Leave their Union since the Landmark Janus Decision
- The Freedom Foundation highlighted how, in the five years since the Janus decision, membership in the four largest labor unions representing public employees has declined by 733,745.
- The Mackinac Center released a report that finds more than 20% of workers in non-right-to-work states have dropped out of their unions since the Janus ruling.
- In Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation noted the state’s strongest unions have lost more than $100 million in direct payments from more than 26,000 nonmembers and 17,000 members who’ve resigned their union membership since the Janus decision in 2018.
- And in New York, the Empire Center released a report, The Janus Effect, which reveals that the number of unionized New York state government workers choosing not to pay union dues is increasing.
Thanks to these organizations and many more, hundreds of thousands of public workers who feel unrepresented and without a voice at work are finally empowered to leave their union. But despite these significant wins for workplace freedom, there’s still many more opportunities for states to implement the historic Janus decision. Working together, this Network will continue their efforts and campaigns to help all workers find their voice and leave their union if they chose to do so.
The Janus Effect
Janus V. AFSCME At Five: Government Union Membership At Record Lows
New Report Shows Large Drop in Union Membership Five Years After Janus Decision
5 Things to Know About Janus v. AFSCME
State Policy Network
How to Leave Your Union: Help for Government Workers
State Policy Network
Janus v. AFSCME: US Supreme Court restores government workers’ First Amendment rights in landmark case
State Policy Network