U.S. Supreme Court gives Rauner major victory over labor, in ruling that could undercut public worker unions nationwide

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Gov. Bruce Rauner on Wednesday notched a major victory in a battle with organized labor when the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion that could undercut public employee unions nationwide.

In a case with roots in Rauner’s first weeks in office, the court ruled that public workers shouldn’t have to pay fees to a union they don’t want to join.

The idea behind the “fair share” fees is that unions negotiate on behalf of all employees within a workplace, and workers who benefit from bargaining should help cover that cost even if they don’t agree with the union’s politics. Unions and their advocates have warned that a ruling against the fees could weaken unions by undercutting their funding and membership.

By a vote of 5-4, the high court found that the fees violate workers’ First Amendment rights to free speech, reversing a 41-year precedent.

Rauner traveled to Washington, D.C. this week in anticipation of a ruling, putting him in position to take a victory lap if the ruling went his way and demonstrating his high interest in the case. Rauner has cited it as a reason a second term would be different.

The lead plaintiff is Illinois state employee Mark Janus, who objected to the roughly $45 per month deduction from his paycheck that went to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. His attorney contended that the state is violating the workers’ free speech rights by compelling them to subsidize organizations whose political activities they might oppose. And Rauner says it’s impossible to separate political activity within an entity whose purpose is to negotiate with the government.

Illinois and about two dozen other states require its workers to pay the fees. The money is supposed to be earmarked for the union’s expenses related to negotiating new contracts and handling grievances on behalf of workers, not to pay for political activity.

Challenging the fees was one of Rauner’s first acts when he took office in 2015. He issued an executive order giving state workers who don’t want to pay permission not to, and he later instructed state agencies to stop collecting the fees on behalf of public employee unions. He also preemptively filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have the matter escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rauner’s executive order and his directive to the comptroller’s office have been on hold while the court battles have been playing out.

In March 2016, the court was considering a different case in which an southern California teacher argued that her free speech rights were violated by being forced to pay about $650 a year in union fees. But the death of Justice Antonin Scalia left the court without a majority and it issued a 4-4 split decision affirming a lower court ruling that had rejected the teacher’s argument.

Now, Illinois’ case reached the high court after President Donald Trump’s appointment of conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, who broke the tie.

For his part, Rauner was removed from the lawsuit he’d brought when a federal judge ruled that he lacked standing to challenge public unions in his official capacity because he had “no personal interest at stake.” Three workers who also were contesting the fees proceeded with their own complaint, now known as Janus v. AFSCME.

Janus is being represented by attorneys at the National Right to Work Foundation and the Illinois-based Liberty Justice Center — an affiliate of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank that was allied with Rauner until last year when he and the group had a falling out.

Rauner has used the Janus lawsuit to make the case to voters that he should be reelected to a second term, pointing to it as an accomplishment from his time in office and promising that once the fees are overturned, it will result in “transformative change” for taxpayers. But in a sign of the political division among conservatives at the moment, he was scolded earlier this year by the Liberty Justice Center for “falsely claiming involvement in the case and making predictions about its success.”

“Claiming involvement in a case and then speaking unsolicited on behalf of those actually charged with winning the case is irresponsible and grossly misleading,” Liberty Justice Center President Patrick Hughes wrote in a February letter to Rauner. “The real hero in the Janus case is Mark Janus, who has been willing to take his case to the highest court in the land, face public scrutiny and put his livelihood on the line. Yes, you initiated the Janus case by issuing an executive order in 2015. But that’s where your involvement ended.”

But that hasn’t deterred Rauner, who pointed to the case days before the March primary election when asked to identify something he was doing to excite Republican Party voters.

“You look at how we’re going to transform politics in Illinois, across America, when we win the federal lawsuit against AFSCME that I started,” Rauner said. “That’s transformative. You think that Republicans across Illinois, across America, aren’t excited about how that will change the balance of power between taxpayers and special interest groups inside government?”

Kim Geiger

Chicago Tribune

kgeiger@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @kimgeiger

Photo Credit: Plaintiff Mark Janus passes in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after a hearing on February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

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