By Spencer Sunshine
Janus v. AFSCME is a crowning triumph of a loose network of right-wing think tanks and legal foundations which have spent decades chipping away at the government safety net, environmental and business restrictions, and the rights of unions.
Janus challenges a 1977 ruling, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. Except in right-to-work states (where none of these rules apply), each state decides whether state employees are obligated to pay agency fees. Because unions engage in political activity, Abood ruled that compulsory union membership violated state employees’ freedom of speech. However, the court also upheld employees’ obligation to reimburse unions for their advocacy, which worked on behalf of both those in the union and those who weren’t. (Otherwise they would be “free riders,” who gain material benefits from the unions but do not pay for these services.) Abood held that these employees could be obligated to pay agency fees, which covered all union costs except for political campaigns; these are usually 90 percent of union dues. Janus will revisit this question. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the case will affect about 17 million public-sector workers across the country.” It will also disproportionately affect black women, who “make up 17.7 percent of public-sector workers, or about 1.5 million workers.”
The case’s plaintiff is Mark Janus, who works for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, and is represented by AFSCME. Mr. Janus makes an annual salary of $71,000, and is suing over a $45 monthly agency fee to AFSCME.
But this isn’t an instance of one angry man driven by a litigious rage to make it easier for his employer to decrease his income. Mr. Janus is backed by a slew of think tanks and foundations who are funded by the Koch Brothers, among others. Behind Mark Janus are millionaires and billionaires whose life work is to destroy, not just unions, but all social guarantees for people in the US.
The case originated with billionaire private equity fund manager Bruce Rauner’s run for Illinois governor in 2014. He went to court to stop the collection of agency fees. The courts said that Rauner didn’t have standing in the case, but they allowed Janus to take his place.
Janus is not alone in his "struggle"; he is represented by lawyers from the National Right To Work Legal Defense Fund (NRTWLDF) and the Liberty Justice Center. These are just two of the many well-funded right-wing groups working to destroy decent living standards for working people.
The NRTWLDF is a non-profit which is associated with the 501(c)4 lobbying group, the National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC), as well as the National Institute for Labor Relations Research. In 2012, the three groups, which are dedicated to destroying unions, pulled in $25 million. The founder of the NRTWC, Reed Larson, was a leader in the far right John Birch Society. They traffic in a variety of far right conspiracy theories, many of them derived from antisemitism, opposed to the Civil Rights movement, and have an extreme pro-market approach. The John Birch Society cleaned up these ideas by making them origins seem less obvious, and wrapped them up in an ultra-patriotic images and slogans. Larson was in the same John Birch Society chapter with Fred Koch (the father of the infamous Koch brothers Charles and David), and the NRTWC has received significantly amounts of money from the Koch family.
The NRTWC is also connected to a variety of rightwing groups such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), which is notorious for authoring a wide variety of right-wing legislation. NRTWLDF is a member of the State Policy Network, a Koch-backed network of state-based right-wing think tanks and foundations. NRTWC spent $7 million in the 2012 elections. In 1984, they were accused of spending $100,000 on private detectives who infiltrated the AFL-CIO and other progressive groups.
The Liberty Justice Center’s Director of Litigation, Jacob Huebert, is one of Janus’s lawyers. The center is a public interest law firm, so its funding isn’t visible, but it is connected to the Illinois Policy Institute. This institute is part of the State Policy Network, and receives money from Koch-linked groups such as Donors Trust. The Illinois Policy Institute also received money from the Mercer Family Foundation. The Mercers have funded Far Right propaganda outfits with connections to White Nationalists such as Breitbart and alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos.
In addition to these two groups, dozens of organizations have submitted amici curiae briefs in Janus, showing a cross-section of the right-wing groups who are supporting this attack. They include the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. Mackinac specifically targets public sector unions; one email from a staffer said, “Our goal is to outlaw government collective bargaining in Michigan.” Mackinac supported a 2011 Michigan law that gave the governor the power to abolish unions and local governments. It is also part of the State Policy Network and receives Koch-linked funding.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose 2011 assault on his state’s public sector unions inaugurated this recent wave of attacks, also receives support from similar networks of right-wing institutions. And Walker, in turn, is tied to Trump’s Education Secretary Betty DeVos, who is intent on destroying public schools as we know them—along with the teachers unions based at them.
Walker received support from the Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-linked vehicle. Their president estimated that the group spent $10 million in Wisconsin in 2011 and 2012 to support changes made by both Walker and the legislature. Walker also received significant backing from the Bradley Foundation. Its founder was also close to the conspiratorial John Bitch Society. After 2010, Bradley gave a half million dollars to Americans for Prosperity, which in turn supported Walker. Bradley also provides financial support to the State Policy Network and ALEC. This non-profit which funded several groups that ran interference for Walker as he battled a 2012 recall campaign. The foundation also gave over $1 million to media which have attacked an investigation into potential illegal funding which involves Walker. Bradley’s head, Michael Grebe, was also Walker’s campaign manager three times, and was later tapped to lead Walker’s 2015 presidential effort.
While many of these think tanks and foundations that fixate on public sector unions tend towards an economic libertarianism and are separate from the network of organizations fighting abortion access and LGBTQI rights, there is some crossover. One particular area is the area of charter schools, whose explanation simultaneously allows public dollars to support religious schools, dismantles public education, puts pressure on school budgets, and undermine unions for both teachers and other educational sector workers. Walker expanded his state’s school voucher program starting in 2011. The Center for American Progress says that Devos’s family gave Walker $342,000 between 2010 and 2017. The pro-voucher group she formerly lead, the American Federation for Children, spent over $5 million in Wisconsin since 2010 to support Republican officials. And Walker in turn publicly supported Devos’s appointment as Education Secretary. It’s a relatively small circle of wealthy Republicans give each other money and appoint each other to high-ranking positions.
Progressive groups used to have a more robust group of think tanks and foundations, but these have been systemically defunded for decades. The Republicans have been able to coalesce around four sets demands: religious fundamentalists seek limits gender and sexual freedom; market fundamentalists want to destroy the social safety net and unions; and xenophobes demonize Muslims and immigrants, as well as US-born people of color, including Indigenous and African American communities. The Janus case, with its disproportionate harm for Black women in particular and possible kneecapping of the union movement in general for its support of immigrants’ rights, anti-discrimination measures and the social safety net, manages to neatly combine nearly their whole agenda in one Supreme Court package.
Spencer Sunshine is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in Truthout, Colorlines and The Forward. His Twitter handle is @transform6789
Photo credits: Picture of "right-to-work" Vance Muse and TX business John Henry Kirby via the Law and Working Class History Association article The Origins of Right to Work. Meme, Don't Be Like Mark, is from the Facebook feed of Western NY Labor Today.