The plaintiff in the anti-union Supreme Court case known as Janus v. AFSCME was Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the Illinois Department of Health Care and Family Services. But Janus wasn’t fighting alone.
The case against the union representing Illinois state employees — concerning the constitutionality of requiring public employees to pay a fair-share fee if they opt not to join the union — was bankrolled by anti-union billionaires.
“Janus is the latest salvo in a decades-long war on labor unions — one that is aimed at reducing the power of unions and union members to make their voices heard in the political realm,” says Charlotte Garden, an associate professor at the Seattle University School of Law and an expert in labor law.
In an attempt to reduce that power, the forces behind Janus “have focused their attack on public sector workers — the workforce with the highest union density,” according to an Economic Policy Institute report.
Fair-share or agency fees have been paid by workers who choose not to join their workplace union but reap the benefits of its collective bargaining.
In Janus, says Garden, “The goal is to force unions to spend more member dues on representing nonpaying nonmembers, rather than the things that unions do to build worker power — new organizing; lobbying on behalf of causes like the minimum wage or paid sick leave; or campaigning for candidates who will center the concerns of working people.”
Janus’ case was funded by the Illinois Policy Institute with money from the powerful conservative political network of the Koch brothers, Charles and David, and billionaire Richard Uihlein, who Politico has called “the biggest Republican mega-donor you’ve never heard of.”
Uihlein, a wealthy shipping-supplies magnate from Illinois, has spent millions of dollars backing GOP candidates including Gov. Scott Walker of right-to-work Wisconsin and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, the original plaintiff in the Janus case. Uihlein also has recently been the chief financial backer of the Liberty Justice Center, the legal arm of the Illinois Policy Institute that represents Janus, according to Noam Scheiber and Kenneth P. Vogel, writing in The New York Times.
And he has donated more than $1 million to groups like the Federalist Society that work to move the judiciary in a more conservative direction, say Scheiber and Vogel, helping to create a Supreme Court that ruled for Janus.
The Economic Policy Institute report found that the corporate-backed anti-union organizations that support the Illinois Policy Institute include Donors Trust, whose contributors include the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, founded by the in-laws of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a major financial backer of the 2016 Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association fair-share suit and a reported supporter of the anti-labor Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany; and the Charles Koch Institute.
Ann Hodges, a professor emerita at the University of Richmond’s School of Law, says the Janus lawsuit was part union-busting, part pure politics, plus, “These are anti-tax folks and to some extent limited government folks and so to the extent that they can prevent higher taxes by reducing the resources that go to things like public schools, I think that’s a piece of it.”
The billionaires behind Janus won’t be hurt by the fallout because, as Hodges notes, they are not likely to rely on public services or send their kids to public schools.
The Economic Policy Institute’s Celine McNicholas and Heidi Shierholz, writing in The American Prospect, say that at the core of the Janus case “is whether a group of wealthy donors and corporations will be allowed to rewrite our nation’s rules to serve their own interests at the expense of the public good,” by attacking “the crucial services on which most Americans depend.”