A Supreme Court decision last year shook up decades of labor law and the effects are still being argued. The case is Janus vs. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The high court ruled that public employees of state or local governments can’t be forced to join or pay labor unions. Why? It’s a free speech violation — forcing workers to support political positions that unions advocate. More than a year later, we wanted to know how the ruling impacted union membership and were surprised by what we learned. Our cover story is: forced to pay.
Gary Mattos works for the state of Maryland prison system.
Sharyl: One day you open up your paycheck and see what?
Mattos: A union due fee. Even though I'm not in the union, I've never been to union meetings. I've never signed union papers. Never expressed that I wanted to join a union. And there it was, a union due.
It was money the state of Maryland was taking, without his permission, and sending to the local Union that he’d never joined: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees or “AFSCME Council 3.”
Sharyl: How did you find out?
Mattos: Well, there really wasn't a whole lot being told until after the fact. And then I realized that the State of Maryland had given the ASCME 3 the right to basically tax us, steal from us. I feel like it was stolen from me.
Kelsey: What they did was illegal. It was unconstitutional.
Today, Mattos is taking the lead in a recently-announced class-action suit. It demands the union return money taken from paychecks of non-union members before the Supreme Court’s “Janus” decision.
Mattos: I found out I was paying over $400 dollars a year just to have a state job. and I think that's wrong, and I want it back.
Brian Kelsey is an attorney with the nonprofit Liberty Justice Center public interest law firm The group leading the fight for the refunds.
Kelsey: We filed a lawsuit in Maryland and we filed other lawsuits in Pennsylvania and New York and Illinois saying that now that we know that these funds were illegally taken from government workers, it's time for the unions to pay those monies back.
You might think that union membership would have dropped drastically after the Supreme Court ruled public employees can’t be forced to join or pay. But a year and a half after the Janus decision, you might find the results unexpected. An analysis by the Manhattan Institute think tank found unions have lost some fees once paid by non-members. But union membership hasn’t gone way down some unions even report gaining members. Part of the reason, Kelsey argues, is that some workers are trapped with unions working hand in hand with states, politicians and courts to block the impact of the Janus decision.
Kelsey: We do know that they've made huge strides to try to sign up new members and to keep their members in and they're even going to the point of doing illegal acts to keep those union members in the union.
Sharyl: What are some of those allegedly illegal acts?
Kelsey: The main actions that the unions are taking is they're saying that you cannot resign from the union until a certain time period comes up within your contract. That time period oftentimes is a year from now or sometimes, in one case, it is up to four years later that these workers are trapped in the union.
Janus: We're also finding that there is now over 100 pieces of what's now known as anti-Janus legislation, where bills have been introduced at various states to try to circumvent the decision
Mark Janus is the name and face behind the famous Supreme Court decision. He was working for the state of Illinois in 2015 when he mounted his union challenge.
Sharyl: After the Supreme Court decision, what happened?
Janus: So I very quickly realized that the unions were pushing back on a lot of this. They did not want their monopoly to go away that they have, collecting all these millions of dollars from people. And so they're going to fight it. We're finding that if people want to resign from a union, once they've heard about the case and they realize they don't have to be a member, the unions are not allowing them out. They're saying “Well you only have a two week window, let's say two weeks out of 52 that you can resign and get out." We have people that are submitting resignation letters, and the unions just totally ignore them.
Janus now advocates full time with the Liberty Justice Center trying to stop unions from trapping workers.
But for all those who don’t want to join or pay a union others see things differently.
Cartright: When the Janus decision came out, it overturned 40 years of precedent that set up the idea that if you're benefiting from the collective bargaining negotiation in a public-sector union, you got to pay your fair share and not be a free rider.
Congressman Matthew Cartwright is on the other side. He represents a Pennsylvania district with a strong union history.
Cartwright: I live in Scranton. Scranton is the home of a very proud labor tradition. It started with the anthracite coal strike of 1902
He says the Janus decision is part of an organized attack on labor unions.
Sharyl: There are a lot of people who say, "I didn't like my money being spent on a union whose views I don't agree with, who contribute to certain political candidates and do things with the money that I don't agree with.” That was the free speech issue in some instances.
Cartwright: Oh, it's clearly that was the argument. Do you buy that? Or do you say that that's just pretext for wanting to clamp down on union rights overall? I happen to see it as the latter because what it does is it hurts union's ability to engage in negotiation and collective bargaining by cutting down on the money that they get.
Cartright is behind a pro-union bill designed to protect unions and expand membership.
Cartwright: Certainly it cannot overturn the Janus decision, nobody can overrule that except for another Supreme Court decision.
But your bill, if passed, would
Cartwright: My bill if passed would ameliorate at least some of the problems for that.
Mattos isn’t swayed. He says unions serve some workers well but insists nobody should be forced to support them.
Mattos: To me, that's more important than the money. Sure I could use the money, but it's to stand up against the bullying. Like I'd always tell my daughter, "You got to stand up. You got to be heard."
Sharyl: You're telling them what?
Mattos: What you did was wrong, and I'm going to hold you accountable to it.
Congressman Cartright’s pro-union bill has almost 200 co-sponsors mostly Democrats and two Republicans.