Janus unleashes coordinated attack on unions

Rauner's new state website on changing union membership crosses line as 'strikingly partisan'

Gov. Bruce Rauner discusses the Janus ruling on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday. But a new state website goes well beyond the remedies of that decision. (Twitter/Governor Rauner)

Gov. Bruce Rauner discusses the Janus ruling on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday. But a new state website goes well beyond the remedies of that decision. (Twitter/Governor Rauner)

By Ted Cox

Union leaders and labor experts cried foul Thursday over a state website encouraging public workers to "change (their) union membership status" in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Janus decision.

Unions also charged that Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration was sharing personal contact information with anti-union organizations as part of an $80 million national campaign to discourage union membership.

The state webpage, titled "Change Union Membership Status," begins as a notification that Wednesday's Janus decision no longer obliges Illinois public workers to pay what's known as "fair share" fees for the services such as collective bargaining that they receive from unions — the basic substance of the high court's Janus decision.

But it soon goes on to explore the ramifications if an employee chooses to "opt-out of the union." That crosses a line, according to unions and labor academics.

Calling the entire website "strikingly partisan," Prof. Robert Bruno of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said Thursday that it goes far beyond the high court's ruling in the Janus decision.

"The most that the state should do, if it's complying with the letter and the spirit of the court's decision, is to simply notify employees that fair-share designation no longer exists," Bruno said. 

The Janus decision pertains to "fair share" fees for those who don't belong to unions, Bruno pointed out. The state-funded website uses that as an entryway to address union members directly.

"Who are they talking to?" Bruno said. "Who is the audience? Well, the audience is not fair-share members. The audience for this is union members. Clearly, clearly the state should not be involved in a campaign to solicit union defections."

Clearly, clearly the state should not be involved in a campaign to solicit union defections.
— Prof. Robert Bruno

Union leaders said that was nothing new for Rauner.

"Rauner’s administration used the state email system yesterday to blast-email all employees with a deliberately confusing, misleading message linking to this site," said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 that was directly involved in the Janus case. "It’s a familiar tactic from Rauner, who has always tried to confuse and divide workers and weaken their voice on the job.

"State employees haven’t fallen for his ploys in the past," he added, "and we doubt they will now."

Lindall pointed to how when Rauner issued a 2015 executive order trying to block fair share, some 2,000 fee payers actually joined the union to sign up as full members.

Lindall charged, "The Rauner administration gave state employees’ personal, private information to the Illinois Policy Institute" and other anti-union groups as part of an "$80 million national campaign to try to trick workers into quitting their union."

The Bloomberg online news site confirmed that nationwide campaign in a story on Wednesday shortly after the Janus decision was handed down.

Lindall dismissed that campaign, saying, "We’re confident that workers understand who’s behind these attacks, what their motives really are, and know that sticking together in their union is the only reason we’ve come this far."

Bridget Shanahan, spokeswoman for the Illinois Education Association, said teachers were also getting emails at their school addresses directing union members to the site and discouraging union membership, but they weren't just coming from the state, but from the Illinois Policy Institute and the Michigan-based Mackinac Center. She charged that IPI members have been submitting Freedom of Information Act requests in a misguided attempt to get union information such as membership and dues, but they could also simply pull teacher email addresses off school websites.

"I can't suggest that Rauner is doing that," Shanahan said. "The IPI can probably figure that out for themselves. Same with the Mackinac Center. But we do know that Bruce Rauner donates to the IPI. We do know that Bruce Rauner was trying the Janus case and the catalyst for it. We do know that he's out to destroy unions. So I would't be surprised if there's some connection there."

Shanahan said the IEA was encouraged by teachers' immediate responses. "We're really proud of our members," she said. "They let us know right away that they got these emails." She added that they also passed on their frequently sharp replies to those emails.

Rauner's office was defiant. "Janus v. AFSCME returns the First Amendment rights of free speech and association to state employees," said spokeswoman Elizabeth Tomev. "We have notified employees of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and giving them the opportunity to modify their union status." She did not address charges of shared personal contact information except to say, "Your sources are wrong."

Bruno pointed to language on the webpage that countered prevailing arguments in the Janus case and bordered on outright lies. The site says unions are obliged to represent workers whether they're members or not, which is true enough, but then goes on to suggest that health care, retirement, and other benefits are mandated by the state and "do not depend on union membership and collective bargaining."

"That is not what the Supreme Court said," Bruno added.

The Rauner-sponsored legal team for Mark Janus argued that unions lobbied for state policy in negotiating for better benefits, in what was tantamount to political speech, and Associate Justice Samuel Alito cited that in his majority opinion siding with Janus.

In any case, it's clear that, while the state might be obliged to provide health care and retirement benefits for some workers, the level of those benefits are typically set in collective bargaining.

Shanahan said it's also apparent that, given how the email campaign came within hours of the Janus decision being handed down, it's a coordinated campaign between state government and conservative groups.

"This is clearly a planned attack," Shanahan said, "and we believe the Janus case is not just an attack on public unions, but an attack on public education. This is a move by Gov. Bruce Rauner, (U.S. Education Secretary) Betsy DeVos, other members of special-interest groups, and the conservative right to privatize our public schools and get us out of the way."

One Illinois has previously charged that Rauner has coordinated with the IPI on political attacks, and we are pursuing those connections.