Last week, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear what is sure to be a landmark case with multiple constitutional issues in play. According to the Heritage Foundation’s Elizabeth Slattery, Janus v. AFSCME “will be one of the biggest cases of the term and could have huge implications for unions across the country.” Mark Janus, an employee at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, is fighting what he believes to be a violation of his First Amendment rights. In the last case challenging government unions’ unconstitutional practices, Supreme Court justices deadlocked by a 4-4 vote. But now, I am hopeful that Trump appointee Justice Neil Gorsuch will come to the rescue and stand over the public-sector unions’ casket with a mallet and a wooden stake.
At the heart of Janus v. AFSCME is the question of whether constitutional protections are infringed upon when government unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) use compulsory “agency fees” — which are meant to cover the cost of negotiating collective-bargaining agreements — to fund what the Competitive Enterprise Institute described in its brief to the Supreme Court as “advocacy on such issues as: right-to-work statutes, infrastructure spending, government privatization and contracting, the minimum wage, voter-identification laws, tax policy, immigration reform and enforcement, gun control, D.C. statehood, marijuana legalization, ‘racial justice,’ and Supreme Court nominations, among many others.” In other words, they use union members’ money to advocate on a nearly endless list of partisan issues. If that isn’t political speech, I don’t know what is.
AFSCME’s persistent quest for more government has manifested itself through years of intense lobbying and political contributions to members of the Democratic Party. The union, which bills itself as “the nation’s largest and fastest growing public services employees union with more than 1.6 million working and retired members,” uses its enormous political war chest derived from compulsory dues to elect officials who are beholden to the AFSCME view that government itself must only be concerned with growing larger and consuming more public money, rather than better serving the people and becoming more accountable. Limited government is the opposite of what government unions need to enrich themselves.
No matter how you look at it, AFSCME is a relentless drain on the body politic. It has taken the idea of a union and applied it to public institutions where no union belongs — specifically, our own governments. AFSCME is essentially a single-issue political party whose sole interest is in advocating for the growth of government and government for government’s sake. And it is, in reality, a parallel organization for the Democratic Party.
To some degree, AFSCME actually wields more power and is more potent than Democratic Party committees themselves. Democratic Party institutions still have to solicit funds. Yet the union’s interpretation of the law simply allows it to demand payment from government employees regardless of whether they seek AFSCME’s services or agree with its political objectives. And so it goes — members are compelled to hand over their money, that money is used to elect Democrats, Democrats advocate for more government and AFSCME’s influence grows.
Just last year, AFSCME spent more than $55 million on political activities and lobbying efforts from its national headquarters in Washington. That means tens of millions of dollars in compulsory payments went on to almost exclusively support Democrats in elections throughout the country — at all levels of government. And that was only for 2016. AFSCME spent more than half a billion dollars on liberal political initiatives from 2005 to 2015.
Theoretically, government exists to serve the people. And our elected leaders are supposed to manage the government. If voters are dissatisfied, they can remove those leaders. But the government union stays, unelected by American voters and unaccountable. No matter what.
The debate over whether government unions should exist at all, representing the interests of the protected government class over those of the American people, is for another time. The reality we are faced with today is one where organizations such as AFSCME have, as the Competitive Enterprise Institute noted, “demonstrated unbridled creativity in channeling the fees paid” by individuals such as Janus “to fund a range of ideological activities as wide as any political party’s.” The fact is, money is fungible and can be easily redirected wherever government union officials — or AFSCME leadership in this case — intend for it to go.
The Supreme Court has yet to set a date for when it will hear Janus’s case, but it looks as though AFSCME’s day of reckoning is near. And labor unions across the country know it.
AFSCME’s incentive to support more government and more spending on government employees is hindering our ability as a nation to operate effectively and with proper accountability to voters. In AFSCME v. Janus, the Democratic Party has a lot at stake. It won’t back down without a fight. Every Democratic candidate who wants to keep the gravy train running — and certainly any Democrat interested in running for president — will have to make as much noise as possible. It’s going to get ugly.