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Opinion Why I took my case over forced union dues to the Supreme Court

Plaintiff Mark Janus stands outside the Supreme Court on June 27.
Plaintiff Mark Janus stands outside the Supreme Court on June 27. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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Mark Janus was the plaintiff in Janus v. AFSCME.

My home state of Illinois is in financial free fall. The state has billions of dollars in unpaid bills, has unbalanced budgets and is bleeding people and money.

A state doesn’t get into a mess like this overnight. It’s the result of many seemingly small decisions over many years. It’s for that reason that I fought to not be part of that mess — all the way up to the Supreme Court.

In 2017, as media pundits wondered whether Illinois would be the first state to have its credit rating downgraded to junk status, I watched the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union lobby for higher taxes to pay for higher salaries and benefits for government workers such as me. Certainly, my salary wasn’t the cause of the state’s financial woes, but when you consider that I have had a raise almost every year I have been working for the state — and that I work alongside more than 35,000 other state employees — you can begin to see how that might affect the state’s bottom line. That’s in addition to the incredibly generous, taxpayer-funded pension offered to state workers — an average of $1.6 million per state employee, according to a report from the Illinois Policy Institute.

The Supreme Court ruled against public unions that required non-member workers to pay fees June 27. Here's what you need to know. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Decisions about government workers’ salaries and pensions aren’t made independently by elected officials who are unaware of the state’s empty bank accounts. The raises and benefit increases are pushed by government labor unions that have lobbied for the authority to negotiate on behalf of government workers. In 22 states, government workers like me — as well as police officers, firefighters and teachers — are required to pay fees to these unions to negotiate on our behalf, even if we don’t want to be members or we don’t support what they negotiate.

Why don’t politicians just say no to the demands of the unions when they know the state can’t afford them? Because the unions bankroll into office the same people who ink their contracts. Unions are among the top spenders in elections, and they make sure that people who don’t support their demands lose their seats.

Since its contract expired in 2015, AFSCME, which I am required to fund even though I am not a member, had increasingly used the possibility of a strike to push the state toward accepting the union’s demands for higher salaries and benefits. I couldn’t stand by anymore while these policies were bankrupting the state. That’s why I asked the Liberty Justice Center to represent me and take my case to the Supreme Court.

I would gladly forgo my annual raise because it’s more important to me that the state get its financial house in order. I would happily have my pension converted into a 401(k), instead of piling more obligation onto the bankrupt pension fund. But I haven’t had a choice about either of these, and I have been forced to pay for a private organization that I don’t want to be a member of to negotiate for things I don’t believe in.

Union leaders said I did have a choice: Quit my job. Agree with the union or quit my job as a government worker. Think about that for a minute: To be a government worker, you have to agree with and fund a private organization?

Not only is it common sense that people should not have to fund a private organization that is advancing government policies they oppose, it also violates the First Amendment.

After many decades — and many millions of workers having to make this unfair bargain — the Supreme Court agreed. It said Wednesday that government workers can’t be forced to pay fees to unions as a condition of working in public service. Thanks to this ruling, workers such as me will no longer have to check our First Amendment rights at the door when we enter public service. We will no longer be required to fund unions that are negotiating policies that are bankrupting our states.

Government workers will still be free to join unions, and most will. Unions will also still negotiate on behalf of government workers, just as they do today in the 28 states where workers aren’t forced to pay unions fees. The change that the court made simply respects the rights of workers who don’t want to be forced to pay for policies they oppose. We can all agree that’s a fundamental right that American workers deserve.

Read more:

Elizabeth Bruenig: Workers are free at last — to sink

Patrick Wright: Unions say the Supreme Court has hobbled them. That’s not true.

Marc A. Thiessen: Time to protect public workers from unions’ coercion

Megan McArdle: Why you should care about the Supreme Court’s Janus decision

Helaine Olen: The Supreme Court is returning us to the Gilded Age — and it’s about to get worse