This commentary is by Mailee Smith, senior director of labor policy and staff attorney at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization.
Nearly five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Janus v AFSCME, forever limiting the power of government unions.
In their decision, the Supreme Court drew a line in the sand, confirming the inherently political nature of public sector unions and freeing government workers from the obligation to financially support political agendas they may not endorse.
In the half-decade since this landmark decision, the labor landscape has shifted. Just as in the Janus case, Illinois serves as a model for what’s to come across the nation: unions that are more political and militant than ever.
It appears many workers, when presented with the option to leave, have done so rather than stay with organizations they feel don’t represent their interests or values.
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 (AFSCME) has seen an 18.5% drop in Illinois dues and fee payers since 2017. AFSCME’s national affiliate lost nearly 172,000 supporting workers, a 12% drop nationwide
Across the state, government union membership in Illinois has fallen by over 8.5% compared to 2017, with 36,418 fewer government workers choosing to pay dues or fees to their unions, according to their federal reports.
Every major government union in Illinois, save for SEIU HCII, has seen a decline in members and fee payers since the ruling. When looking closer within SEIU HCII’s own documents, about one-third of its 91,000 represented workers across four states have also opted not to be union members.
In the face of declining membership, government unions have been forced to adapt, ramping up their political activity to preserve and make permanent their power. In 2022, less than 21% of AFSCME Council 31’s spending went toward representing workers, while the remainder was channeled into politics, administration and other union leadership priorities.
With a new contract expected to be announced in the coming weeks, taxpayers will face the cost of increased demands from a union with new powers just enshrined in the Illinois Constitution. That constitutional maneuvering and aggressive politicking are how government unions have sought to entrench their power in the face of Janus and declining membership.
The amendment placed in the Illinois Constitution last year was advertised as a “workers’ rights” amendment. In reality, Amendment 1 granted government unions the ability to demand virtually anything in negotiations and a permanent right to strike to get those demands met.
It granted the power for resulting agreements to trump state law. After it passed on a narrow margin in Illinois, it emboldened government union bosses to try similar labor amendments in both California and Pennsylvania.
Proponents of these potential amendments will inundate voters with the false notion the measures are there simply to protect workers, the tactics they developed in Illinois. But the truth is collective bargaining is already protected by federal and state laws. These measures are simply power grabs putting taxpayers at risk from government unions demanding and striking over any political aim — from affordable housing to defunding the police.
Political spending is another method unions are using to cement power as they lose members.
In Chicago, nearly 91% of Mayor Brandon Johnson’s campaign funding came from 27 unions. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which employed Johnson as an activist, spent nearly $2.3 million to maneuver him into office, and now stands as the most influential organization in Chicago politics. This despite some CTU members voicing discontent with the handling of campaign contributions and filing an unfair labor practice complaint against the union.
In total, CTU has financially backed half of the sitting lawmakers in the Illinois General Assembly and 68% of sitting aldermen in Chicago, including notable political figures such as Emanuel “Chris” Welch, Don Harmon and Jeanette Taylor.
And with its five work stoppages since 2012, CTU has broadened their demands beyond the usual issues of compensation and working conditions and inspired other unions to do so. The Boston Teachers Union has pushed for “housing justice,” and the Oakland Education Association in California went on strike over climate change demands.
On the fifth anniversary of the Janus ruling, it’s clear the role of government unions has undergone a significant transformation. Instead of hearing the justices’ rebuke and members’ rejections, unions have become even more entrenched in politics, prioritizing their power and agendas over the interests of their remaining members.
Government unions could have used the Janus ruling to reinvigorate their mission as public employees’ advocates, but instead they have chosen to pursue political power that corrupts the democratic process and weakens taxpayers’ voices.