A state of Illinois government website and email that pointed out to all state employees that a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling means they are no longer required to pay fees if they chose not to be in a union is causing a bit of confusion.
And the union representing the majority of state workers is accusing Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner of putting “anti-work vitriol” into workers’ email inboxes.
The accusation had the governor’s office defending the email and website, insisting it is “straight-forward.”
As state workers scrambled to understand the new lay of the land, their reactions varied widely — with some tap dancing in delight about finally being free from paying union fees and others grousing that non-union members should pay for the benefits they receive.
“Everyone wants the benefits of a union, but they want to be cheap and not pay for it,” one unionized state worker complained.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday delivered a win to Rauner and a blow to organized labor in the landmark Illinois case Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, ruling that non-union government employees’ First Amendment rights shield them from having to pay fees to a union to cover costs to represent them.
The state of Illinois quickly launched a government website where workers in the public sector could learn about how to change their union status and avoid paying dues – and all state employees were sent an email alerting them to the ruling and about “fair-share” dues being automatically deducted for non-union members. State officials equated those fees to about $737 for non-union members per year – with full union member dues at about $911 per member.
Under the Supreme Court decision, those non-union workers no longer must pay those fees, unless they opt to join the union.
But the Illinois Central Management Services Department acknowledged state employees were confused on Thursday. The department said hundreds of employees went onto the website, believing they would have to take action to ensure the fees were no longer deducted. But under the new Supreme Court ruling, the state said they would automatically stop deducting the fees from non-unionized workers.
That apparently caused issues that could impact workers paychecks. But the department said it hoped the confusion would be settled by Monday.
About 75,000 state workers are represented by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31, with fewer than 10 percent of that number being non-union members still covered by collective bargaining, according to AFSCME Council 31 spokesman Anders Lindall.
Lindall called the state’s email blast to all employees “both misleading and confusing.”
“It is entirely a pattern with Rauner’s ongoing efforts to confuse and divide workers,” Lindall said.
The union is accusing Rauner of trying to persuade employees to opt out of the union using the state email system. Lindall argues that the union doesn’t have access to state email addresses and uses personal email addresses to communicate with workers.
Rauner spokeswoman Patty Schuh, however, called the site “pretty straight-forward.”
“It’s sharing with the employees their rights following the Supreme Court decision,” Schuh said. “Obviously the state has an obligation to inform its employees of a historic United States Supreme Court decision and their rights under that decision. Anyone who read the material will see it’s very clear and straight in providing the facts.”
But AFSCME says they received “confused” and “angry” calls from members.
“That anger was directed at the governor for again putting this unduly, confusing message in their boxes,” Lindall said. “And you know there’s a lot of people who see it for exactly what it is: his anti-worker vitriol being jammed into the inboxes when they are just trying to do their jobs.”
The email offered a link to a state website with the header “Change Union Membership Status” — although Lindall said state employees would have to contact the union to change their status.
Lindall said the union immediately sent out emails to state employees “making it very clear that no state worker need use the governor’s anti-union site.”
Meanwhile, in Cook County where 82 percent of its 22,000 employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements, but officials couldn’t say how many paid full union dues versus the fair-share fees levied on non-union workers.
Government workers are all still trying to process the news.
Union and non-union state workers interviewed by the Sun-Times varied in their opinions on the ruling and what it might mean for them. All asked to remain anonymous to protect their jobs.
One non-union employee with the state’s chief procurement office said she tap-danced when she heard about the Janus decision.
Since the woman joined the department in 2004, around $700 is taken out of her paycheck yearly in fair share fees and taxes. She wanted to know when she could expect a refund for the money she’s been paying over the years.
“I’m glad the Supreme Court has released me from this,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair for everyone to pick up the responsibilities of an association, especially when they’re not part of it.”
A non-union attorney in the state attorney general’s office said she was “not surprised, but perhaps disappointed” by the Supreme Court decision.
A unionized system’s analyst with the state’s office of innovation and technology felt the decision was politically motivated.
“Unions support families and the working class and we need them for job security, growth and protection,” he said. “They’re vital to us.”
DISCLOSURE NOTE: Some unions have ownership stakes in Sun-Times Media, including the Chicago Federation of Labor; Operating Engineers Local 150; SEIU Healthcare Illinois-Indiana and SEIU Local 1.