After Janus decision, what’s next for Illinois’ public sector unions?

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It didn’t take long after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against public sector unions in Janus v. AFSCME on Wednesday for Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration to send an email to state workers inviting them to opt out of paying union dues.

The Supreme Court ruled that government workers cannot be required to pay “fair-share” agency fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining – though unions are still required to represent all workers in a bargaining unit.

The same afternoon, an email from the acting director of the state’s Central Management Services told union members they could stop paying dues, claiming that healthcare, retirement and other employee benefits are guaranteed to all state workers and “do not depend on union membership or collective bargaining.”

That’s a remarkable claim, given Rauner’s record in contract negotiations with state workers.

For the tens of thousands of state workers represented by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and homecare and childcare workers represented by Service Employees International Union – all of whose contracts expired in the middle of 2015 – Rauner has refused to compromise on his extreme contract proposals, including four-year wage freezes.

For AFSCME workers, he’s sought to declare an impasse and impose his “last, best offer,” which includes doubling healthcare costs, a provision the union says would amount to a $10,000 annual pay cut for the average worker.

For homecare and childcare workers, he’s proposed eliminating their healthcare coverage entirely. For these low-wage workers – who, thanks to their union, now make $13 an hour instead of the sub-minimum wage they earned before winning union representation – that means that without a union, they would likely have no healthcare benefits.

As far as retirement benefits, Rauner has backed an amendment removing the protection against impairing or diminishing pension benefits from the state constitution. Without the full pensions that they’ve paid into throughout their careers, many of these retirees – most of whom aren’t eligible for Social Security – would be forced into poverty.

This is a top priority for Rauner’s anti-union allies, who blame the state’s fiscal crisis on public workers and their pensions, and only a strong union movement stands in their way.

Public employee unions face a new landscape. But in a press conference following the Janus decision, Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey pointed out that CTU existed long before agency fees were instituted to prevent “free riders” from benefitting from the contract without contributing to its costs.

CTU has withstood an attack on its collective bargaining power by Rauner, who was joined by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and House Speaker Michael Madigan to push through a 2011 law intended to prevent Chicago teachers from authorizing a strike.  The next year, 90 percent of CTU members voted to strike.

AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch said about 10 percent of the 38,000 state workers represented by her union have been paying fair-share fees, but many of them consider themselves “fair-share members” who simply choose to abstain from the union’s political activity.  When Rauner came into office and issued an executive order (subsequently blocked by a judge) banning fair-share fees, a couple thousand of those workers responded by joining the union, she said.

One Illinois union has already dealt with fallout from a similar decision. The Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Harris v. Quinn eliminated agency fees for 20,000 Illinois homecare workers represented by SEIU Healthcare. “There is life after right-to-work,” union president Greg Kelley told me.

SEIU homecare workers have already seen the door-to-door canvassers paid by right-wing anti-union groups backed by billionaires like the Koch Brothers, urging union members to quit. The Koch-backed State Policy Network has reportedly pledged $80 million for similar drives across the country following Janus.

“It’s part of the new normal,” Kelley said.  The canvassers don’t take an explicitly anti-union approach, he said: “They don’t say the union is bad; they just say you can get all the benefits without paying for it.”

The union has lost some members, but it has fought back by mobilizing its membership for organizing drives and recouped some of the losses, he said. “Our members are still very much resolved to stick with their union,” he said. “Especially in this political environment, they see the need to stick together to have a say on their job and improve their lives.”

The new environment “presents an opportunity for us to be a 21st century union,” Kelley said.  “It requires us to do things very transparently and be in continuous communication with our members, mobilizing and organizing – much like the way unions began in this country, going back to what works.”

He points to the wave of successful teachers strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona – all right-to-work states – as evidence that public workers are not going to give up.

He adds, “It would make a big difference to elect a governor who sees unions as a partner, working with the state to improve the quality of life, rather than a bogeyman.”  And he doesn’t think running as an anti-union candidate is a winning recipe for Rauner.