Review of the Janus Case That May Severely Damage Public Sector Unions

I see this effort to damage unions as a mechanism to give more money to the richest people in the country. It’s an important Supreme Court case for a variety of reasons though and the column does well to explain it.

Later this year, the United States Supreme Court will decide a lawsuit filed by Mark Janus, a public employee in the State of Illinois. Janus is arguing that he cannot be forced to pay a representation fee to a public sector union as a condition of employment by the state. If the court rules in favor of Janus, as is widely expected, it will be yet another blow against unions, further weakening workers’ power.

Under current law, the federal government gives states the option of allowing “agency shop” provisions in contracts under which everyone who is covered by a union contract. Twenty-four states, including California and New York, allow such contracts.

These contracts make it easier for unions to organize and to be a strong presence in the workplace since they prevent workers from being able to freeload. Without an agency shop provision, workers would be able to get the pay and benefits negotiated by the union, and even the right to have union representation in disputes with management, without having to pay a penny for those union supports.

While most workers support their union and will pay representation fees without being required by a contract, recent experience indicates that between 20 to 30 percent of workers will take the freeloading option. This hugely weakens the union if they lose 20 to 30 percent of their revenue. It is likely to make them a less effective agent for members and will almost certainly result in fewer unions in the public sector.

This is clearly the goal of the groups supporting Janus. He is having his suit funded by right-wing groups that have been attacking unions for decades. The ostensible basis for the suit is that Janus somehow has his right to work compromised if he has to pay representation fees as a condition for holding a public sector job. The argument is that the government can’t force him to support an organization (the union) that he may not like. (It is important to note that he is not forced to join the union, only pay for his representation.)


In the 1970s, unionization rates in the private sector were over 20 percent. They are now under 7.0 percent. Meanwhile the unionization rate in the public sector has changed little, remaining close to 37.0 percent for most of this period, until the recent attack started pushing it down in the last five or six years.
It is understandable why the right would be targeting unions. Not only are they an important source of funding and a source of campaign workers for Democratic candidates, but they have also been behind efforts to push progressive measures at the state and local level.

With the right effectively blocking most progressive movement at the federal level since the early days of the Obama administration, many state and local governments have moved forward with measures like higher minimum wages, paid family leave and sick days, and even state-managed retirement systems for private sector workers.
In every case where such measures have advanced, unions have played a central role. In some cases, this has meant lobbying legislators to support these measures. In others, proponents were able to pass these measures into law with ballot initiatives in which funding and campaign work by unions were essential.

The right recognizes the importance of unions to progressive change and for this reason wants to do everything it can to weaken them. Unfortunately, many people who consider themselves progressives have not been as understanding of the role that unions have played in promoting change. As a result, they have not always been supportive of measures to facilitate unionization and sometimes push policies, like charter schools, which are a direct attack on public sector unions.

It may be too late to prevent an anti-union ruling in the Janus case, but finding ways to rebuild the labor movement is not just a problem for labor unions. It is a problem for anyone interested in progressive change in the United States. It will be necessary to be as innovative in finding ways to support unions as the right has been in its efforts to destroy them.

Gerrymandering Case Reaches the Supreme Court

Gerrymandering is rigging the political process to allow the politicians to pick many of their voters, a reversal of what the actual order should be in a real democracy. The U.S. (and a lot of other countries for that matter) are better described as plutocracies than democracies though.


The legal scholars and voting-rights activists who brought the case, now dubbed Gill v. Whitford, have asserted that Wisconsin’s state Assembly and state Senate district maps were rigged by Governor Scott Walker’s hyper-partisan legislative allies to lock in the majorities they gained in the wave election of 2010. Republicans gerrymandered legislative district lines so aggressively that in the next election, even as Wisconsin Democrats won 174,000 more votes than Republicans in races for state Assembly seats, Republicans won a 60-39 majority in the chamber.

The democratic disconnect illustrated by those numbers has strengthened the argument that the gerrymandering of district lines denies voters their right to participate in fair and competitive elections. And jurists have begun to accept that something must be done to make elections more reflective of the popular will. As the lead plaintiff in the Wisconsin case, longtime University of Wisconsin law professor William Whitford, says: “In a democracy citizens are supposed to choose their legislators. In Wisconsin, legislators have chosen their voters.”

Last year, a three-judge federal-court panel declared that the Republican maps were unconstitutional because they violated the Equal Protection Clause and freedom-of-association rights that extend from the First Amendment. For the first time in more than three decades, a federal court had invalidated legislative district lines because of partisan bias. Whitford has described the panel’s decisions in the case as “truly historic,” and said they “could have a monumental impact in ensuring that voters’ voices are heard across the nation, regardless of party.”


Now the Wisconsin case comes before the US Supreme Court and, despite that court’s conservative bias in recent years on voting-rights matters, Whitford and others are hopeful for its prospects. Why? Because Justice Anthony Kennedy, the key swing vote on the high court, has in the past stated that “If courts refuse to entertain any claims of partisan gerrymandering, the temptation to use partisan favoritism in districting in an unconstitutional manner will grow.” If Kennedy sides with more liberal members of the court, a blow could be struck against gerrymandering—not just in Wisconsin but, via the respect-for-democracy standard that could be set, nationally.