An outsider looking in might think Mark Janus has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The child support specialist for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services is less than three weeks away from oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in his case challenging forced union dues.
The court's decision could change labor law across the country, impacting hundreds of thousands of government workers in 22 states without right-to-work laws.
Janus admits he's a little nervous about the Feb. 26 hearing before the highest court in the country, but he's clearly ready for it.
"Pretty nervous. I mean, this is a big case," he said when I asked him how he was feeling with the oral arguments quickly approaching. "It’s not intimidating, but the nervous[ness] comes from the fact that this is a big case. And that my name is very prominent on a lot of the docket sheets and the other material."
Indeed, if the Supreme Court rules in his favor, as many expect it will, Janus vs. AFSCME will be known as the case law that gave public employees their First Amendment rights back.
Janus has worked for the state of Illinois a little more than 10 years. When he was hired, he had no intention of joining the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. Unbeknownst to him, however, Janus still was required to pay AFSCME a fee for the union's representation of him. Even though Janus didn't join AFSCME, he still is represented by the union during contract negotiations with the state because Illinois law requires it.
Janus believes that's a violation of his First Amendment rights, so he sued AFSCME.
"I have to pay an agency fee, which is mandated. I don’t have any choice in the matter," Janus said. "I think that it’s against my First Amendment rights to have to pay this fee because it doesn’t give me the freedom of association, which is guaranteed. The freedom of association is by the First Amendment an individual right, but here I am paying these fees to an organization I don’t agree with."
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants Americans certain liberties: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
The right to assemble has been broadly interpreted to include the rights of Americans to associate, "peaceably," with whom they want. That also includes the rights of Americans to not associate with those whom they don't want.
By taking a portion of his paycheck against his will, Janus argues he is being forced to associate with a union whose policies he doesn't support.
Union advocates say the dues Janus pays to AFSCME are his "fair share" for the collective bargaining the union does on his behalf. Janus counters that collective bargaining itself is a form of politicking that he shouldn't have to financially support.
"The recent contract talks, the current administration didn’t agree with their increases in wages and benefits that they were asking for, and so they went out and held rallies across the state advocating for higher taxes," Janus said. "I don’t agree with that. … I think that’s wrong."
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and AFSCME remain in a years-long contract dispute largely over salary and benefits.
AFSCME members have been without a new contract since July 2015. The state labor board ruled in November 2016 that the two sides were officially at an impasse, allowing Rauner to impose his last contract terms, but the union appealed and the dispute has been tied up in the courts ever since.
AFSCME is seeking salary hikes and other benefits that would cost Illinois taxpayers more than $3 billion over the life of a new four-year contract, according to the governor's office. Rauner’s final offer includes a salary freeze for workers, who are the highest paid in the U.S. when adjusted for inflation. He also wants employees to pay more for their health insurance and work a 40-hour week instead of the 37.5 hours they currently work.
"The state can’t afford it," Janus said of AFSCME's demands. "We’ve got a multibillion [dollar] deficit. We’ve got an unfunded pension liability and so many other things that are just plain out of whack. I just don’t think I need them to represent me in that regard."
The Supreme Court will hear the case in a couple of weeks and likely render a decision this summer.
A very similar case to Janus', Friedrichs vs. the California Teachers Association, went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. Rebecca Friedrichs, a school teacher, also was forced to pay dues to a union she didn't want to be a part of. She also filed suit arguing her First Amendment rights were being violated, and her case also made it to the country's highest court. Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died before the issue was resolved. After Scalia's death, the court deadlocked 4-4.
Since then, President Donald Trump appointed conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to the bench. Many legal scholars expect Gorsuch to break the tie in Janus' favor.
"If we win in this case, it means that Mark and every other worker ... will have the right to choose for themselves whether to give money to unions," said Jacob Huebert, director of litigation at the Liberty Justice Center, which along with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation represents Janus.
But Janus said he isn't getting ahead of himself just yet.
"I think I’m going to concentrate right now on what we’re doing in the present," he said. "And let’s wait and see what the decision is."