Janus v. AFSCME: What Is It About?

By Beatrice Calvin

If you read or watched the news at all in the past week or so, you probably heard about the ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).  It was a landmark labor law case regarding a challenge to an Illinois law that allowed unions representing government employees to collect fees from workers who choose not to join the union.

The case involves Mark Janus, a child support specialist at the State of Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services and AFSCME, the union that represents Illinois public sector employees. According to the Chicago Sun-Times Newspaper, Janus said in lower court pleadings that he “objects to many of the public-policy positions that AFSCME advocates for in collective bargaining and that the union engages in “one-side politicking.”

In the 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the “State’s extraction of agency fees from nonconsenting public sector employees violates the First Amendment.” The justices overturned a 1977 Supreme Court opinion (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education) that said employee unions could, without violating First Amendment free speech rights, collect “fair share” or “agency fees” since the unions have a legal obligation to represent all workers, whether they chose to be members or not.

Before the ruling, there were 22 states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington) that allowed unions to charge nonmembers for the costs of collective bargaining and grievance procedures. These costs are called “fair share fees” or “agency fees.”

In the other 28 states (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) called “right to work” states, state law prohibits unions from charging nonmembers these sorts of fees. Laws in these states make it illegal for employers to compel workers to join or not join, or to pay dues to a labor union as a condition of employment.

In states without right-to-work laws, workers who don’t join unions or at least pay some sort of fee can be terminated for such actions. (Employees in right-to-work states can still join a union if they wish, however.)

The decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case effectively makes all states right to work states. The ruling has led to numerous discussions across the nation. No matter the profession, people appear to fall on both sides of the debate. Some are pleased with the decision. Others are not. It’s no surprise then, that people are on both sides of the controversy within the library profession as well.  In fact, there are robust discussions taking place on ALA’s online member community, ALA Connect.  Login to ALA Connect to read and/or join the discussions.

I’m sure the court’s ruling will not end the union debate. Watch for upcoming issues of Library Worklife Newsletter and American Libraries magazine for updates. More information will be forthcoming about the impact this decision will have on library workers covered by unions.


Department for Professional Employees (DPE)

Includes a section on the Union Difference for Library Workers


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