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‘It’s Rather Daunting’: Mark Janus Reflects on What It’s Like to Be the Plaintiff at the Center of a Key Supreme Court Union Dues Case

By Carolyn Phenicie | March 7, 2018

Plaintiff Mark Janus speaks to the media in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after a hearing on Feb. 26 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Washington, D.C.

To hear one side tell it, a pending Supreme Court case aimed at ending mandatory public employee union dues is a vital defense of First Amendment rights. To their opponents, it’s really a pernicious attack by wealthy conservative donors on the livelihoods of American workers.

For the man at the center of it all, Mark Janus, a 65-year-old Illinois child support services worker, it’s all a bit much.

“It’s rather daunting, to be frank. I wasn’t expecting this much notoriety, if you will,” he told The 74 a few weeks before the February 26 oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME. The case could potentially upend how unions representing teachers and other public-sector employees negotiate with governments and influence political campaigns.

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Protests outside the court after arguments only added to the disconcerting feel: Janus’s backers carried signs urging onlookers to “Stand with Mark” and “Stand with workers,” while union and civil rights groups pushed a message of “union strong” and linked the case to liberal bogeymen, billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Each side, in an effort to drown out their opponents’ messaging, had speakers blaring Motown and pop hits seemingly more appropriate for a wedding reception than a weighty debate on core constitutional principles.

“They said there was going to be a rally, but I had no idea it was going to be this magnitude. That was the daunting part of it, the sheer numbers. But I’m glad we had support here,” Janus, a father of two adult children, told The 74 after oral arguments.

The spectacle of the warring sides in front of the majestic courthouse was reminiscent of the one that played out in January 2016, when a nearly identical unions dues case came before the court. In that instance, however, the lead plaintiff was Rebecca Friedrichs, a California teacher whose mixture of high energy and camera-ready poise was a strong contrast to Janus’s quiet Midwestern demeanor.

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Both Janus and Friedrichs, who was on hand at arguments this go-round, too, made the same objection: that compelling them to pay even partial union dues, which fund traditional union activities like contract bargaining, violates their First Amendment rights against subsidizing political speech with which they disagree. Those contracts affect public policy and the taxpayer purse, so they are inherently political, they say.

Unions and their backers say the fees are needed to prevent “free riders” from benefiting from contract benefits without paying for them; they also drew the justices’ attention to cases that give the government more leeway to restrict free speech rights when it’s acting as an employer.

The oral arguments in court were “a bit intimidating,” Janus said. “To have your name before the Supreme Court is quite, quite an honor,” he added.

Janus said his involvement with the lawsuit was “a mutual thing.” He had heard about the Liberty Justice Center, the libertarian group that brought his lawsuit, at the same time they were looking for plaintiffs to challenge the mandatory dues.

The center heard from other workers, both before and after filing the case, who objected to the dues, but not everyone was willing to attach their name to the case and take it all the way to the high court, Jacob Huebert, one of Janus’s attorneys, said.

Janus’s case is one of several filed in recent years challenging mandatory union membership, with three reaching the Supreme Court. Two gradually chipped away at union rights, and the third, the one brought by Friedrichs, ultimately resulted in a tie, and no change in the law, after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The precedent that unions could charge non-member employees for the part of their activities that covers collective bargaining dates back to 1977 and another Supreme Court case known as Abood.

Media have detailed the links between conservative donors, the nonprofit firms bringing the cases, and GOP politicians. Janus is clear to frame his arguments on First Amendment grounds and maintains that he doesn’t dispute workers’ right to organize, just dissenters being forced to pay for it.

Janus first worked for the state in the mid-1980s before leaving to start a private printing business and then — motivated, he said, by a sense of public service — returned to state employment in 2007.

It was that return to public employment — and, for the first time, required payment of union dues — that fueled his advocacy, he said.

“The more I thought about it, and as time rolled on, I just became more and more disgruntled, or upset, that I had to pay these fees. I’m not a member of the union, and the more I thought about, I’m thinking, ‘Why do I have to pay for them to do things that I don’t agree with?’,” he told The 74.

Janus specifically disagrees with AFSCME’s demands for a salary and benefits increase despite Illinois’s ongoing budget crisis, he said.

“When the current governor said, ‘No, we’re not going to cave, and we’re not going to pay these increases,’ what did the AFSCME people do? They went out and held rallies around the state, advocating an income tax increase to pay for these benefits, when the state’s broke. I think that’s a pretty clear indication that their collective bargaining is political,” he said.

Most of Janus’s coworkers know about the case, but there hasn’t been too much of a reaction at work, he said. A few people have come to him quietly to say they back him, he said, while others are not so supportive.

“I’ve got people that plain don’t talk to me,” he said. “But that’s fine.”

With President Donald Trump’s 2017 appointment of conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court is at its full complement, and a 5–4 outcome overturning the dues is expected. A decision will be handed down before the end of the court’s term in late June.

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