Forced-Unionism Illinois: The ‘Just-Above Junk’ State

Over just the past decade, unfunded state public pension liabilities in Big Labor-dominated Illinois have more than tripled, and now stand at roughly $130 billion. And that’s under a rosy scenario! Image: Washington (D.C.) Examiner.

For years, government union monopolists have been ripping off ordinary taxpayers in Illinois, a state where both private- and public-sector employees may be forced to pay Big Labor dues or fees as a job condition, in a host of ways. Meanwhile, the Prairie State’s economic performance has been abysmal.

From 2006 to 2016, for example, civilian noninstitutional employment in Illinois, as measured by the U.S. Labor Department, fell by 1.2%. Over the same period, civilian employment in the 22 states that had Right to Work laws on the books for the whole decade grew by 8.1%.

In November 2014, fed-up Illinoisans elected Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who promised to curtail government union kingpins’ special privileges in order to get public compensation under control. With the state effectively broke, Rauner has insisted the insanity of Big Labor-negotiated contracts that force taxpayers, for example, to spend $15,000 a year per member of the the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union on health-care costs alone must come to an end.

In response, government union bosses have steadfastly refused to acquiesce to any contract changes offering substantial relief for overburdened Illinois taxpayers. And  the Big Labor Democrat politicians who wield operational control over both chambers of the Illinois Legislature have publicly encouraged government union chiefs’ intransigence. But Rauner has for the past two-and-a-half years refused to back down and forge a budget deal by flagrantly breaking his 2014 campaign promises to taxpayers.

Consequently, Illinois is now about to enter its third year in a row without a constitutionally required budget. On June 1, as Tom Rogan of the Washington (D.C.) Examiner reported last week, “respected debt assessors Moody’s and S&P Global lowered their rating of the state’s debt to one level above junk.”  Rogan added that, unless the state addresses its “fiscal nightmare” soon, Illinois could lose its investment grade status altogether this summer and become the “nation’s first junk state.” (See the link below to read Rogan’s entire account.)

The statutory forced-dues and monopoly-bargaining privileges wielded by government union kingpins in Illinois have helped transform them into such formidable political players in Springfield that it’s almost impossible to imagine a brighter future for the state’s taxpayers and other citizens who depend on vital government services. But a legal case that could be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court during its 2017-18 term has the potential to loosen substantially union officials’ stranglehold over lawmakers.

On June 6, Illinois civil servant Mark Janus asked the High Court to hear a case he has so far pursued in federal district and appellate courts challenging the constitutionality of forced union dues and fees as a condition of public employment.  Janus is being represented by staff attorneys for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Liberty justice Center.

Janus v. AFSCME seeks to overturn the High Court’s 1977 decision in Abood, which held that, even though forcing public employees to subsidize union-boss advocacy on workplace issues infringes on the employees’ First Amendment rights, such infringement is permissible because it purportedly helps maintain “labor peace.”  At the same time, Abood held that, under the First Amendment, government union officials may never force objecting union nonmembers to bankroll Big Labor political and ideological advocacy.

Janus and his attorneys contend the distinction Abood attempted to make between (permissible) forced speech on workplace matters and (impermissible) forced speech on political matters is untenable. They urge the High Court to relieve public employees of the obligation to subsidize any kind of Big Labor advocacy. If their position prevails, and government union kingpins in states like Illinois are consequently stripped of their privilege to collect forced dues and fees, the inordinate power of union bosses to block common-sense reforms in the way public employees are compensated will erode over time.

Ultimately, the Janus case could provide the Prairie State with a real opportunity to emerge from its fiscal morass.