Jim Dey | Illinois-based Supreme Court case making for a big Monday

Jim Dey | Illinois-based Supreme Court case making for a big Monday

Next Monday — at the nation's highest court in Washington — lawyers will present oral arguments in the Illinois-based case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.

The battle over whether public employees can be compelled to pay the equivalent of union dues to labor organizations they do not wish to join is a legal battle with a huge political subtext. Indeed, like other political battles in the Land of Lincoln, it could just as easily be renamed Rauner v. Madigan — Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner versus Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan, carrying legal water for her father, House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Rauner kicked the whole thing off shortly after he took office in 2015 when he challenged the authority of AFSCME to collect so-called "agency fees" from nonmember state employees. Attorney General Madigan is among the parties to the litigation because she is defending the Illinois law that compels "fair share" dues payments to AFSCME by nonmembers.

The issue ultimately ended up in federal court in Chicago, where Rauner was dismissed from the lawsuit because he had no standing to sue. The governor was replaced as the petitioner by Mark Janus, a Springfield-area resident and onetime Eagle Scout who works in the child-support enforcement division of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

Twenty states have filed friend of the court briefs defending the union's position while another 20 states are urging the court to overturn a 1977 ruling in a case from Detroit that upheld union authority to assess fees to nonmembers.

Here is the issue: Is it a violation of a nonunion member's right to free speech and association to be required to contribute financially to a public employee union whose political activities he does not support?

Put more succinctly, the court is being asked to decide whether individual public employees will be able to exercise free choice in deciding whether to join or support the union or continue to be compelled by law to do so.

Proponents say that it is a First Amendment issue because almost everything a public union does is political in nature, their activities inevitably involving taxpayer dollars.

Union supporters reject that claim, asserting the nonmembers are merely being required to pay for the union's cost of representing them in contract negotiations. If nonmembers were freed of that burden, union backers say, they would become "free riders."

How will the court rule?

The smart money predicts the high court will rule 5-4 in Janus' favor, an educated guess stemming from the court's 4-4 tie in a 2016 California case posing the identical issue.

In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the court was unable to make a definitive ruling because of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. He passed away after oral arguments but before the court resolved the issue.

The tie had the effect of leaving undisturbed an appeals court ruling that backed the union.

Replacing Scalia on the court is Justice Neal Gorsuch, a judicial conservative whom court watchers expect to be persuaded by the free-speech argument. That contention, however, is purely speculation and based solely on Gorsuch's judicial philosophy, not on any of his prior rulings or writings.

Why is this such an important political issue?

Like much else in life, it's all about the money. In this case, it's member-dues money that labor unions spend on political campaigns, mostly on behalf of the Democratic Party, and wage and benefit gains they can win at the bargaining table from friendly officials they help to elect.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed in January that 10.7 percent of the U.S. labor force is made up of union members. That's down from 20.1 percent in 1983.

That 10.7 percent represents 14.8 million workers, compared with the 17.7 million union workers represented by the 20.1 percent number in 1983.

But private-sector union membership is dramatically declining — 6.5 percent of the private-sector labor force in 2017, according to the labor bureau. Public-employee union membership is 34.4 percent of the public-sector labor force — more than five times higher than the private-sector rate.

Critics of public-sector unions believe they can reduce their impact on the size and cost of government if they can weaken public-employee unions by stripping them of their power to coerce either membership or agency fees.

The unions apparently agree because they fear their members will decline if they are given a choice on whether to join, although there is no guarantee that will happen. If members are pleased with their union's representation, they would have no reason to leave.

Generally speaking, this difference of philosophy and political interest pits Republicans, like Rauner, against Democrats, like Michael Madigan.

The governor has complained repeatedly and bitterly about the costs imposed on taxpayers by union contracts with government at all levels as well as the immense influence union leaders have on the political process.

At the same time, Michael Madigan has defended public-employee unions as crucial to maintaining a middle-class lifestyle for their members. He also relies heavily on unions, both public and private, for the campaign funds that help him elect Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.

How much do nonmembers pay in agency or "fair-share" fees to the union?

According to the legal brief submitted by Lisa Madigan, the agency fee is "equivalent to 78.06 percent of union dues," almost the whole ball of wax.

She asserts that that money covers solely the cost of representing nonmembers, a defensible expenditure nonmembers have a moral obligation to pay.

Critics say that since money is fungible, the more money the union gets from nonmembers to pay union administrative costs, the more money it has to donate to the political causes and candidates it supports.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.