Ashley Varner: Supreme Court opened the door a crack with Janus decision but unions still block way to freedom

One year ago, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to issue its landmark right-to-work ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, labor leaders around the country complained to anyone who would listen that banning mandatory dues and/or agency fees for government workers would put a nail in the coffin of public-sector unions.

But now, the same unions that raised the alarm are boasting that Janus had little, if any, impact on membership.

Which version of events is true?


Neither, actually.

Organized labor leaders and their allies on the left exaggerated the doomsday scenario of a ban on mandatory dues prior to Janus, just as they’re misrepresenting the extent of the damage now. And for the same reason: the truth exposes the house of cards on which their whole enterprise has been built.

Union spin doctors anxious to downplay the negative impacts of Janus disingenuously cite national numbers that show a relatively modest number of member defections over the past year, but union membership numbers are typically shrouded in secrecy, making accurate analysis difficult. Even when using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Office of Labor Management Standards and government payroll figures, the totals can fluctuate wildly, raising red flags about union boasts that Janus had only minimal impacts.

Annual reports filed by national unions like the NEA, SEIU and AFSCME indicate most major government unions saw the number of employees paying dues or fees decline by 2 to 6 percent in the months after Janus.

But the Janus ruling didn’t come entirely out of the blue. It was preceded in 2014 by Harris v. Quinn, which recognized the opt-out rights of a narrow subset of government employees, in this case, Medicaid-compensated home care aides and childcare providers.

Then in 2016, nearly every observer predicted the court would extend right-to-work protections to the entire public sector in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, only to see the case end in a 4-4 draw following Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected passing.

It took two more years for a virtually identical case, Janus v. AFSCME, to make its way to the court, and unions spent the interim tightening up their membership rules, working with sympathetic state legislatures to pass anti-Janus statutes, filing preemptive lawsuits and coaxing members to sign new membership contracts – often using highly suspect methods.

Given the four years unions had to prepare for the worst, combined with decades’ worth of worker intimidation to overcome, it’s hardly surprising the initial round of defections would be limited to only the most disgruntled public employees. But a closer look at the numbers reveals a trend that should worry union bosses.

What should – and does – concern the unions, is where most of the erosion is taking place.

Data indicate unions in the Pacific Northwest – like the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE), SEIU 503 and the Oregon School Employees Association – have seen declines of 20 to 30 percent.

And it’s no coincidence those are also the states where campaigns are deployed to actively inform workers of their rights to leave their union.

Founded as a traditional free-market think tank in 1992, the Freedom Foundation is the only policy organization of its kind in the U.S. to focus its efforts directly on the abuses of government unions. Its multifaceted approach involves contacting public employees at their workplaces and at home, in person and by mail and email, to inform them of their newly affirmed rights under Janus.

And when workers choose to exercise those rights over union objections, the Freedom Foundation provides them with free, precedent-setting legal representation.

The results speak for themselves.

In Washington, WFSE has seen the number of its employees paying dues shrink by one quarter. In Oregon, SEIU 503 – the state’s largest single union – has lost 26 percent of its strength, while the Oregon School Employees Association is down more than 30 percent in just the past year.


The message is clear: huge numbers of public employees throughout the country question the value of their union membership and are interested in dropping it. Where there is an active effort to inform workers of their rights and offer support when they choose to exercise them, workers leave their union.

Make no mistake: Janus pried the door open for public employees to leave their union; but one year in, those unions have kept that open door hidden from many. Our experience on the West Coast, however, is that once workers learn they can leave, they are eager to do so.