When Mark Janus got his first paycheck working as a child support specialist for the state of Illinois in 2007, he was stunned to see a nearly $50 deduction for union dues.
He had worked for the state in the 1980s and didn’t remember anything like it.
“I’m going like, ‘I’m not a member of the union. What’s going on here?’ ” he said.
Worse yet was where he saw the union dues going, such as to efforts demanding wage increases at a time when Illinois was struggling with a crippling pension debt.
Now Mr. Janus is taking his case to the Supreme Court. Justices this month will hear his attorneys argue that he is being forced to subsidize views he doesn’t support, violating his core First Amendment rights.
The case is one of the most-watched this term, two years after a union dues case ended in a 4-4 deadlock. Conservative activists are hoping that with Justice Neil M. Gorsuch bringing the court to nine members, they will be able to reach a decision and rein in the powerful unions.
Unions argue that they perform a critical service for both the state and workers, including Mr. Janus, and that advocacy comes with a price.
In this case, that price amounts to about $550 a year that Mr. Janus pays to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which counts 1.6 million members nationwide.
His local chapter, AFSCME Council 31, works against “big business and the right wing,” which is attempting to “undercut government responsibility for public pensions and retiree health care,” according to its website.
In particular, Mr. Janus said, his union is pushing to increase wages and benefits by $3 billion at a time when Illinois has $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.
“They were willing to go out on strike to get it, and I’m not willing to go out on strike to do that. I can’t support that — the state is busted,” Mr. Janus said.
He didn’t have to pay any dues as a state employee in the early 1980s because only a limited number of public-sector workers had collective bargaining rights.
In 1984, though, Illinois’ Public Labor Relations Act gave most government workers the legal right to engage in collective bargaining. Another law applied specifically to teachers. Both laws were backed heavily by public unions at the time and required them to represent both members and nonmembers.
Illinois is one of 22 states where such fees are mandatory.
Mr. Janus said he was surprised by the fees when he returned to state work in 2007.
“Nobody ever told me about it or explained it to me. It was just there,” he said. “If you don’t pay it, you lose your job.”
He said he doesn’t want to dismantle unions and believes workers should have a right to organize — but not at the expense of making them pay for lobbying they don’t believe in.
Stephen Mittons, a child protection investigator for Illinois and a member of AFSCME Council 31, is defending the union. He said he wouldn’t have been able to send his children to college without it.
“I’ve been able to give my children the kind of life they may not ordinarily have,” he said. “We’ve been able to do middle-class things, go on vacations.”
The Supreme Court upheld mandatory public-sector union fees in a 1977 ruling, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.
In a 9-0 decision, the court said those unions necessarily become political because they are attempting to influence policymaking, but that’s not enough of an interference in their rights. The court said workers can express their opinions without hesitation, even when they contradict the union.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly flirted with overturning Abood, including the 4-4 deadlock of just a couple of years ago. Now Mr. Janus has brought the issue back, and this time he has the support of the government, with the Trump administration reversing stance from the Obama administration.
“Compelling employees to subsidize speech on politics and public policy imposes a severe burden that even highly restrictive prohibitions on speech in the workplace do not,” the Justice Department said in a brief last year supporting Mr. Janus’ case.
AFSCME argues that the fees go to a lot more than advocacy.
“As a result of the negotiating process, unions also engage in costly participatory and cooperative efforts with employers to further the purposes of job training, education, occupational health and safety, and worker retention, among other joint employee-employer endeavors,” the union said in its brief to the high court.
Other public-sector unions are closely watching the case because they fear a major loss of power should workers be allowed to withhold fees.
They are particularly afraid of what happened in Wisconsin, which scrapped public employee collective bargaining in 2011.
Wisconsin’s union membership rates fell from higher than the national average to below in three of the past five years with many members opting out.
Some union workers are hoping Mr. Janus loses his appeal. Chauncey Collins, a home care worker for Illinois, said Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois & Indiana won an agreement in 2015 that boosted his wage from $7.25 to $13 an hour.
Mr. Collins has diabetes and credits his union for negotiating his health care benefits.
“I truly believe that this union has done wonderful things,” he said.