State Policy Network
Janus v. AFSCME decision restores government workers’ First Amendment rights

June 27—Today the US Supreme Court released a landmark decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, Country, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. The Court ruled in favor of plaintiff Mark Janus, a child support specialist who works for Health Care & Family Services, returning First Amendment rights to public sector workers. This means that five million public servants in 22 states no longer have to pay a government union as a condition of employment.

Specifically, the Court ruled that the “State’s extraction of agency fees from nonconsenting public sector employees violates the First Amendment,” overturning the Court’s earlier decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

The Court agreed with Mark Janus that public sector union speech is inherently political since “it covers critically important and public matters such as the State’s budget crisis, taxes, and collective bargaining issues related to education, child welfare, healthcare, and minority rights.”

The Court’s decision will impact how government unions extract fees from members—moving the system from opt-out to opt-in. The onus is now on the unions since public sector employees must now “affirmatively consent” to pay dues. Now, no government worker can be forced to check their First Amendments rights at the door in order to serve their communities.

Mark Janus speaks to the media after the US Supreme Court rules 5-4 in his favor.

What happens next?

This is a long-awaited victory for worker freedom, but the work has just begun. The network now has an opportunity to help workers understand how this decision affects them. In the months leading up to this decision, government union leaders have been hard at work in localities and states to apply pressure on workers and put hurdles in the way for those whose rights have been restored.

Now more than ever, workers like Mark will need the network’s help when it comes to understanding what the decision means for them, holding government accountable, and promoting sound interpretation of legislation and litigation that affects workers’ rights.

Background: What was Janus v. AFSCME about?

Prior to the Janus decision, government workers’ only option to avoid paying dues was to find another job or leave their profession entirely. As a child support specialist who works for Health Care & Family Services in Illinois, Mark—like almost all Illinois public employees—had to pay mandatory AFSCME union fees if he wanted to continue the work he loved. Mark is not anti-union, but he believes he should be able to keep his job and serve his community without being forced to support politics that oppose his own values.

Mark’s story isn’t unique. In 22 states, workers have not been able to take a government job without being forced to pay union fees. For those who are happy with the services provided by the union and fully support the political agenda being advanced, this is not a problem. But those who disagree are left feeling that they are being used or that they have no voice in their workplace.

So, Mark took this question to the US Supreme Court in February: To keep their jobs, should government employees in America be forced to fund political agendas they disagree with?

Represented by Liberty Justice Center and National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Mark’s case argued that public-sector unionsʼ core activity—representing workers in collective bargaining—is inherently political. When a union bargains with the government, it tells the government how much it should spend on government employee salaries, pensions, and benefits in addition to how it should run its programs. When anyone else does that, everyone recognizes it as political speech, and we call it lobbying.

So, when a worker had been forced to give money to a government union to pay for collective bargaining, he or she has been made to pay for someone else’s political speech—something the First Amendment virtually never allows. The only way to protect workersʼ First Amendment rights is to allow them to choose whether to join a union and pay the membership fees.

SPN congratulates Mark Janus, the Liberty Justice Center, and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation on this victory. This victory is just the beginning, and several state think tanks stand ready to help government workers understand and exercise their rights. In the coming weeks, stay tuned for more about how state think tanks are helping workers in their states understand what the Janus v. AFSCME decision means for them.

Check out these resources to learn more about the Janus decision:

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Policy Issues: Workplace Freedom