This op-ed was published on Oct. 9, 2018 in The Patriot-News newspaper in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
By Mark Janus and Keith Williams
When the U.S. Supreme Court restored the constitutional rights of government employees in its recent Janus v. AFSCME decision, we were thrilled. For us, this was no mere academic exercise or legal nuance; the ruling was personal.
For years, we were among the millions of government workers forced to give part of every paycheck to a government union as a condition of working in public service. The unions used our money to fund their policy and political agenda, with which we strongly disagreed. The reason we went into public service careers – Mark, as an Illinois child support specialist and Keith as a Pennsylvania teacher – was to make a difference in kids’ lives; we were never interested in bankrolling political government unions.
Then, in June, Supreme Court restored our rights to free speech and freedom of association. For the first time in more than 40 years, government workers have a voice and a choice when it comes to unions at their workplace. The ruling affects more than 5 million government workers in America, including 330,000 in Pennsylvania.
Unfortunately, not all welcomed this victory for workers’ rights.
Gov. Tom Wolf described Janus as “a major step backward.” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said the court’s restoration of workers’ constitutional rights was “a blatant slap in the face.” Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees (AFSCME), called the decision an “unprecedented and nefarious political attack.”
Their reactions are unsurprising. Many politicians have a financial incentive to support union leaders and oppose giving workers a choice.
For example, Wolf has received more than $10 million in political support from state and national government unions since 2013, according to campaign finance records. Politicians fear that if enough workers choose to leave their union, the torrent of political money will dry up.
How do government workers feel about the ruling?
A survey conducted by Dr. Lloyd Corder of Carnegie Mellon University asked hundreds of public-sector union members for their take on the Janus decision. Of those polled, 71 percent were aware of the decision and its implications. A majority – 51 percent – defied their leadership and united in support of Janus.
While union leadership and their political allies might be surprised by these results, workers like us weren’t; we’ve known for years that the rift between union executives and workers has escalated into a full-blown schism.
Meanwhile, government workers across the country have begun exercising their newly-restored rights. The survey shows 6 percent of workers have stopped paying union fees, and another 25 percent are planning to do so.
Why are unions unpopular with their own members? Here’s one example: All public school teachers in Pittsburgh are represented by a teachers’ union – but not a single classroom teacher today ever voted for this union to represent them. The union was elected, or “certified,” to represent Pittsburgh teachers 45 years ago! The same issue is prevalent across the country.
The Janus decision represents a breakthrough for workers’ rights. In fact, we both believe so strongly in empowering workers to exercise these rights that we recently left our government jobs to serve as advocates at nonprofits dedicated to ensuring government workers are informed about and equipped to act on their Janus rights.
Despite pushback from government union-backed politicians, we’re happy to report that legislators are moving to protect workers from further coercion. House Bill 2571, sponsored by state Rep. Kate Klunk (R–Hanover), ensures new workers and non-union members are aware they can’t be forced to pay a union. The bill also eliminates now-outdated regulations that conflict with the Janus ruling and prevents government unions from collecting fees they are no longer entitled to.
Other pending bills would roll back policies that keep workers trapped in union membership for the term of a years-long contract and would allow workers to regularly vote on what union represents them.
Proposals like these will ensure that the constitutional rights most Americans take for granted can finally be acted upon by teachers, first responders, health care workers, and other government employees who’ve had their voices ignored for far too long.
Mark, a former child support specialist from Illinois, was plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME and is now a senior fellow at the Liberty Justice Center. Keith, a former Pennsylvania teacher, is director of outreach atAmericans for Fair Treatment, a nonprofit which educates, equips, and empowers public sector employees to exercise their rights.