Noting the impending anniversary of Janus v. AFSCME — the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 27, 2018, ruling that banned mandatory union membership, dues and fees for government employees — Washington Post columnist Charles Lane recently dismissed the decision as a nothing burger. 

He wrote:

“(I)n the four years since Janus v. AFSCME, a landmark 2018 decision affecting the financing of public-sector unions, the ruling’s actual impact — to the extent it’s detectable at all — has validated neither the hopes of those who welcomed it nor the fears of those who did not. To the contrary, new research suggests the pre-Janus status quo remains remarkably unchanged.”

It’s a line unions have been peddling for years.

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In fact, on the ruling’s second anniversary in 2020, the American Federation of Teachers’ President Randi Weingarten boasted, “What was intended by the people who brought this case was to defund us. Not simply erode the fee-payers but to try and erode membership. But that hasn’t happened.”

But that depends on who you’re asking — and where you’re looking.

An analysis of the 2020-2021 school year, for example, showed a sharp decrease in membership for the teacher’s unions here in Pennsylvania. It’s not ironic that the Freedom Foundation started its operation in Pennsylvania in 2020 and began educating public sector employees about their right to leave their union.

In the study, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) — the largest single union in our Commonwealth — suffered a membership decrease of 1%. Nationally, both the National Education Association (NEA) and Weingarten’s AFT saw a 2% drop in membership — the equivalent of losing the entire working membership of union affiliates in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Philadelphia combined in a single year.

For its part, the Keystone State has more government union workers than any other state except California, New York and Illinois. Most of these workers lose a chunk of their paycheck each month to pay union executives who often prioritize a political agenda ahead of the workers they claim to represent. 

Not coincidentally, Pennsylvania also has the country’s fourth-highest unemployment rate and the second-highest business tax rate, while ranking 45th in economic performance.

Is it satisfaction with this record that keeps unionized state, county and municipal employees in the fold, or is it something more sinister?

Union bluster notwithstanding, the impact of Janus on the public-sector labor landscape can’t be measured in opt-out numbers alone. There’s also the question of what it costs the unions to fight compliance.

Had the ruling never been issued, unions would not have been forced to pay tens of millions of dollars to lawyers in a procession of lawsuits brought by government workers whose newly affirmed right to opt out of union affiliation was blocked using their own dues.

Government employee unions responded to Janus by adopting a variety of still-being-litigated defensive strategies, including:

  • only processing opt-out requests during a two-week annual window;
  • challenging each request in court, forcing individual workers to battle the union’s well-financed legal team;
  • subjecting union defectors to workplace harassment; and,
  • when all else fails, forging the worker’s signature on membership documents.

[T]here’s a difference between winning over the hearts and minds of your members and buying them a more expensive cage.

While these tactics have undoubtedly suppressed the number of workers who’ve successfully won their freedom, they’ve also cost unions tens of millions that otherwise would have been spent advancing a radically liberal political agenda that in many cases has nothing to do with pay, benefits or working conditions.

Moreover, there’s a difference between winning over the hearts and minds of your members and buying them a more expensive cage.

When union leaders and their mainstream media echo chambers note that membership totals nationally have seen only modest change in the aftermath of Janus, the implication is that workers overwhelmingly approve of their activities and have no desire to leave. 

If that were true, why are the unions working so hard and spending so much to keep members from even learning about the ruling?

Just this month here in Pennsylvania, the state House of Representatives voted to table HB-2042, a hotly contested bill that would have required unions to remind their members once a year of what Janus unambiguously affirmed — their First Amendment right to decide for themselves whether to join and support a labor union with their monthly dues.

Does this sound like a movement with nothing to fear from the truth?

On its fourth birthday, Janus stands as a metaphor for freedom — a concept that will never be irrelevant. 

Hunter Tower is the Pennsylvania State Director for the Freedom Foundation.

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