Public employee unions might be all but toast in the U.S. Supreme Court. And it couldn't happen soon enough for Illinois, its schools and its local governments.
On Monday, justices heard arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, a potentially landmark case pitting an Illinois public employee against the state's most powerful union. The case revolves around the concept of "fair share" fees, which require public employees such as Mark Janus to pay into unions even if they don't join.
In essence, Janus could convert the entire country into right-to-work. In so doing, it could finally weaken the political choke-hold that permits unions to single-handedly drive strong-union states, such as Illinois, off a fiscal cliff. It could stifle the absurd opposition to even the most necessary roll-backs on anachronistic, budget-busting benefits that haven't been accessible to the taxpaying private sector for decades, namely pension and health care benefits for retirees.
Janus and his backers, including Gov. Bruce Rauner, argue that public employee unions are, at the core, political engines and forcing non-supporters to pitch in violates First Amendment protections of free speech and free association. AFSCME and its backers -- including the state of Illinois -- say the unions benefit all employees under a contract through collective bargaining.
As in 2016, when a similar case out of California resulted in a 4-4 deadlock of the then short-handed Supreme Court, the traditional swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy wasn't buying what the unions and its allies from the state Attorney General's Office were selling.
"What we're talking about here is compelled justification and compelled subsidization of a private party, a private party that expresses political views constantly," Kennedy sniped at David Franklin, an attorney with Illinois' Attorney General's Office.
Unions are political machines. They fund campaigns, especially in Democrat-run states such as Illinois. They draft legislation. They actively crusade against even the most necessary budgetary reforms. Any argument to the contrary is nothing short of willful ignorance.
Janus hinges on Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump's typically verbose appointee. Gorsuch didn't say a word throughout the hearing, reported Politico, suggesting he's keenly aware of his pivotal role in the case that could strike-down four-decades of precedent.
Even so, anti-union officials, such as Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, were elated after Monday's argument. While Rauner's exuberance might be premature, on this point, his head is in the right place.
Illinois' pension is underfunded by a whopping $130 billion, according to state reports. Its credit has been repeatedly downgraded. Cities such as Rock Island pour nearly all property tax revenue into police and fire pensions, leaving almost nothing for roads, parks and other services. Even union-friendly Democrats have tried to pass meaningful reform only to see it die in court.
Only a wholesale rewrite of the state Constitution, which includes apparently air-tight protections for the very benefits that are crushing Illinois and siphoning cash away from schools, universities and bridges, can right what's plaguing Illinois. But a truly meaningful constitutional amendment is a non-starter as long as union bosses dictate terms to Illinois' ruling Democratic party.
Thing is, pensions went the way of the dodo years ago in the private sector, replaced by 401(k)s. They remain almost exclusively in the public sector thanks to the political power wielded by the likes of AFSCME. Public unions, in far too many cases, act in direct conflict with their charter. Instead of lifting workers, unions defend a system of haves in the public sector and have-nots in the private sector, with the latter group footing most of the bill.
It's somehow fitting that Illinois' AFSCME might have very well laid the groundwork for a ruling that would seriously weaken public unions throughout the U.S. It has, after all, spent years building the case against it with its own hands.