Janus v. AFSCME: What’s at Stake

Mark Janus loves his job. “Serving others is part of who I am. But in order to do this type of work, I am forced to check my First Amendment rights at the door. That’s why I’ve asked the U.S. Supreme Court to step in.”

This Illinois child-support specialist stands as the lead plaintiff in U.S. Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSMCE, which seeks to end compulsory union fees for public sector workers. This case could significantly impact Pennsylvania’s public employees, potentially freeing teachers and government workers from a coercive system that violates their constitutional rights.

Twenty-two states, including Pennsylvania, require public sector employees to pay union fees—or lose their jobs.

Under the 1977 Supreme Court ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, public employees who do not join the union can be required to pay “agency fees” to the union to cover collective bargaining costs. Though designed to protect workers from funding union political activities, these fees deny workers the right to choose the organizations they join and the politics they fund.

Government unions willingly negotiate to become the exclusive representative of public employees. Used to justify compulsory fees on nonmember “free-riders,” this exclusive privilege eliminates any competition for workers’ membership or dues. The result: out-of-touch, status quo representation. 

On February 26, the Janus plaintiffs argued before the court that such compulsory fees violate their First Amendment freedom of association and freedom of speech rights by forcing them to fund political activities and organizations they oppose.

Government unions spend members’ dues on behalf of partisan candidates, causes, and organizations; and nonmembers lack adequate accountability measures to ensure they aren’t charged for that political spending.

More than that, collective bargaining is inherently political. Union negotiations over wages, benefits, pensions, and working conditions directly dictate how taxpayer dollars are spent—impacting funding for other government services or spurring tax increases to cover the increased labor costs. 

Spending workers’ money on issues they consider harmful to their state and personal working conditions clearly violates their First Amendment right to choose what political causes they fund.

Four Pennsylvania teachers, who also sued in federal court to end compulsory union fees (Harnett v. PSEA, 2017), filed an Amicus Brief supporting Janus. If the Supreme Court rules in Janus’s favor, a new precedent would be set to restore a worker’s right to choose whether or not to subsidize a union.

Five million public sector employees across the nation—including thousands of Pennsylvanians—would finally regain their First Amendment rights.