‘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
According to one perspective, the upcoming Supreme Court case that aims to end mandatory public employee union dues is a crucial defense of First Amendment rights. However, opponents of the case view it as an insidious attack by wealthy conservative donors on the livelihoods of American workers.
For Mark Janus, the 65-year-old Illinois child support services worker at the center of this controversy, it is all a bit overwhelming. "To be honest, it’s rather intimidating. I never anticipated receiving so much attention," he shared with a few weeks before the oral arguments on February 26 in the Janus v. AFSCME case. This case has the potential to disrupt the way unions representing teachers and other public-sector employees negotiate with governments and influence political campaigns.
Protests outside the court after the arguments only added to the unsettling atmosphere: Janus’s supporters held signs urging onlookers to "Stand with Mark" and "Stand with workers," while union and civil rights groups connected the case to liberal antagonists such as the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, as well as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
In an attempt to drown out their opponents’ messages, both sides had speakers blaring Motown and pop hits that seemed more fitting for a wedding reception than a weighty debate on fundamental constitutional principles.
"They mentioned that there would be a rally, but I never anticipated it to be of this magnitude. The sheer number of people was daunting. Nonetheless, I am glad we received support," said Janus, a father of two adult children, after the oral arguments.
The spectacle of the opposing sides in front of the grand courthouse was reminiscent of the events in January 2016, when an almost identical case on union dues came before the court. However, in that instance, the lead plaintiff was Rebecca Friedrichs, a dynamic California teacher whose high energy and camera-ready demeanor contrasted with Janus’s reserved Midwestern nature.
Both Janus and Friedrichs, who was present for the arguments this time as well, made the same argument: being required to pay even partial union dues, which fund traditional union activities like negotiating contracts, violates their First Amendment rights by forcing them to support political speech they disagree with. They contend that these contracts impact public policy and taxpayer funds, making them inherently political.
Unions and their supporters argue that the fees are necessary to prevent "free riders" from benefiting from contract benefits without paying for them. They also drew attention to cases that grant the government more flexibility in limiting free speech rights when acting as an employer.
Janus remarked that the oral arguments in court were "a bit intimidating." He added, "To have my name before the Supreme Court is a tremendous honor."
Janus described his involvement in the lawsuit as a mutual decision. He first learned about the Liberty Justice Center, the libertarian group that initiated his lawsuit, around the same time they were searching for plaintiffs to challenge mandatory union dues.
The center received input from various workers who objected to the dues, both before and after filing the case. However, not everyone was willing to have their name associated with the case and see it through to the Supreme Court, according to Jacob Huebert, one of Janus’s attorneys.
Janus’s case is one of several that have been filed in recent years challenging mandatory union membership, with three of them reaching the Supreme Court. Two of those cases gradually eroded union rights, while the third, brought by Friedrichs, resulted in a tie and no change in the law after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The precedent allowing unions to charge non-member employees for the portion of their activities that involves collective bargaining dates back to 1977 and another Supreme Court case known as Abood.
The media has extensively examined the connections between conservative donors, the nonprofit organizations responsible for bringing these cases, and Republican politicians. Janus is careful to frame his arguments based on First Amendment principles and maintains that he does not dispute workers’ right to organize, but rather opposes forcing dissenters to financially support it.
Janus first worked for the state in the mid-1980s before leaving to establish a private printing business. Later, motivated by a sense of public service, he returned to state employment in 2007.
As time went on and I pondered the situation, I grew increasingly dissatisfied and annoyed with the fact that I had to pay these fees. It bothered me even more because I am not a member of the union, and I questioned why I had to contribute to things that I did not agree with," he explained to .
Janus specifically disagrees with AFSCME’s demands for a raise in salary and benefits, especially considering the ongoing budget crisis in Illinois.
"When the current governor made it clear that he would not give in to these demands or approve the increase, what did the AFSCME people do? They organized rallies across the state, pushing for an increase in income tax to cover these benefits, even though the state is financially struggling. To me, that clearly indicates that their collective bargaining is influenced by politics," he argued.
Most of Janus’s colleagues are aware of the case, but there hasn’t been much of a reaction at work. He noted that a few people have quietly expressed their support, while others are not as sympathetic.
"I have some people who simply refuse to speak to me," he added. "But that’s okay."
With the appointment of conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch by President Donald Trump in 2017, the court now has its full panel, and it is expected that the ruling on the dues will be decided with a 5-4 outcome in favor of overturning them. The final decision will be announced before the end of the court’s term in late June.