Few California primary elections in non-presidential election years have been so anticipated as the one that starts soon, with millions of mail-in ballots arriving in mailboxes long before the official June 5 Election Day.
This vote will yield clues about who will replace Gov. Jerry Brown and begin a new era in state politics. It could also give strong inklings about whether Dianne Feinstein’s long tenure in the U.S. Senate will continue.
But another June event may prove even more important to the future of California’s public affairs. This will come about mid-month, when the U.S. Supreme Court is due to deliver a decision in the landmark Illinois case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The case gets its name from Mark Janus, a child-support specialist with his state’s child welfare agency who is challenging the right of AFSCME, a huge public employee union, to collect money from workers who don’t share its political views and are not union members.
This case echoes the 2016 California case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, where Anaheim elementary school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs challenged the CTA’s right to collect money from her.
If Janus wins, politics and civic life in California could change dramatically. For decades, public employee unions have been a driving force in this state’s politics, financially and in providing campaign manpower. They are one big reason for the Democratic dominance in virtually all aspects of state government.
Unions also have driven very tough contract bargains, empowered in part by their huge political influence, which sees officials from Brown down through legislative leaders and key members of many county boards of supervisors back them strongly.
Back in early 2016, when the Friedrichs case was argued in Washington, D.C., it was fairly obvious after oral arguments and public discussion by the U.S. Supreme Court that unions would lose on a 5-4 court vote. But Justice Antonin Scalia then died suddenly in a hunting lodge and the court deadlocked, letting unions continue to collect “agency fees” from non-members who are nevertheless covered by contracts they negotiate.
Like Friedrichs, Janus argued this spring that this infringes on his First Amendment rights. And it was again obvious after oral arguments and comments by court members that unions would likely lose on a 5-4 vote, with new Justice Neil Gorsuch replacing Scalia.
One typical comment indicating how this will likely go came from the court’s frequent swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy. He blasted unions for advocating “massive government, increasing bonded indebtedness, increasing taxes.”
Recognizing that a Janus/Friedrichs win is virtually certain, Brown and union-allied legislators created a state law giving public employee unions the right to meet and sign up new workers at least every 120 days. Union leaders said this is crucial for them, as they expect soon to need to shore up worker solidarity.
But things may not go quite as desired by the big business interests (including major Republican donors like Charles and David Koch, owners of Koch Industries) who have bankrolled both Janus and Friedrichs.
Forced union dues from non-members may stop, but as they do whenever their backs are to the wall, unions can be expected to become more militant. This could mean many more public employee strikes, including bus and light rail drivers, sanitation workers, Department of Motor Vehicles clerks, court workers, Caltrans road repair workers and many more.
That would be the end of a long era of labor peace essentially brought about by unions’ political domination. For unions may believe they need to drive ever tougher bargains in order to increase worker loyalty and drive membership up.
Plus, the movement away from compelling payment from those who don’t like what’s being done with their money could spread. There could be new objections to bar association dues, student fees, continuing education for doctors and other professionals, and other currently required expenses that have essentially been justified by the same arguments as agency fees.
There could even be more tax resistance on free-speech grounds from persons opposed to government policies.
So Janus, like Friedrichs, is a potential can of worms, a Pandora’s Box whose backers and the Supreme Court may come to regret having opened.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org.