Janus Decision Reverberates in California

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Potentially, the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Janus vs AFSCME may reduce the powerful political influence public unions have exhibited over California policy and politics for some time. “May reduce” being the operative pair of words because that might not come to pass.

In a 5-4 decision, the court concluded that public employees were not compelled to pay “agency fees” when the union represented them in negotiations. The argument from Mark Janus, an Illinois public worker, was that he objected to some of the goals the unions pursued using his money. Janus is far from alone and unions are expected to lose dues from non-members, and perhaps even lose members and their money to pursue political goals.

The decision by the court majority was made on First Amendment grounds. The court concluded that, “Forcing free and independent individuals to endorse ideas they find objectionable raises serious First Amendment concerns.”

The majority’s position is an echo from America’s founding when Thomas Jefferson wrote in A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” Jefferson’s sentiment was included in the majority opinion offered by Justice Samuel Alito.

The response from California political leaders was swift. Democrats, who benefit almost exclusively from union largess, were universally critical of the ruling.

At F&H Daily, we were flooded with releases on the Janus decision, a majority from organizations on the left decrying the result. Some examples:

From SEIU: Today the Supreme Court came down on the wrong side of history.

From Sally Greenberg, National Consumers League executive director: “Janus v. AFSCME is the unfortunate capstone of a decades-long assault on working Americans.” 

From Eddie Kurtz, Executive Director of Courage Campaign: “We are deeply disturbed by this abominable Supreme Court decision to favor wealthy corporations and their right-wing allies over the well-being of American workers.

There were also positive responses to the decision:

Kerry Jackson, Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute’s Center for California Reform: “Today’s landmark ruling restores a freedom that should have never been allowed to be taken from workers — the freedom to not be forced to fund political activity they don’t agree with.”

Will Swaim of the California Policy Center: “This is an incredible moment for our country and especially our state! California is home to 1-in-4 government workers who, until yesterday, were all forced to pay union dues. Those dues added up to a whopping $1 billion annually – money government union leaders used to run campaigns against the taxpaying public.”

The truth is California public employee unions have been preparing for a court decision in which workers would not be compelled to help finance the unions. In July 2014, the California Teachers Association prepared a brief on how to deal with such a decision titled, Not If But When: Living in a World Without Fair Share.

More recently, with the aid of friends in the legislature, unions have introduced bills to offset the Janus decision. Republican Assemblyman Matthew Harper, in a release praising the Janus decision, summarized those approaches briefly:

  • Restrict an employee’s request to stop paying union dues. (AB 1937, AB 2049)
  • Make it harder for employers to discourage employees from joining a union. (AB 2017, SB 285)
  • Allow more public employees to join unions. (AB 83, AB 3034, SB 201)
  • Make employers pay legal fees if they lose a labor dispute, but not unions if they lose. (SB 550)
  • Change the venue for labor disputes from the courts to the Public Employee Relations Board (AB 2886, SB 285)

Yet, the real key to whether unions will lose strength and influence is whether they can convince enough public employees to stick with them in protecting worker rights. In criticizing the Janus decision, Yvonne Walker, president of SEIU Local 1000, actually hit on this note: “Today’s decision doesn’t define who we are or our future. I choose my union because when working people stand together, we thrive.”

Scott Lay, publisher of The Nooner, had this assessment on how the decision might play out with public unions: “Small, tight-knit unions such as firefighter and school locals are less likely to lose members because it is personal among peers. Meanwhile, large unions like SEIU Local 1000 representing the majority of state employees could be hit hard. The closer union leadership is to members, the safer they are under Janus. “

If the unions concentrate on worker benefits and become less involved in political stands, membership losses may not be as great as projected.

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