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A Happy Anniversary for Workers’ Rights

Houston Reese

Director of the Janus Project

Houston Reese
June 27, 2023

A Happy Anniversary for Workers’ Rights

Five years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the First Amendment right of government workers to opt out of their unions. 

In Janus vs AFSCME, decided on June 27, 2018, the Court ruled that public-sector employees have the right to opt out of union representation and cannot be forced to pay union dues. The decision affirmed that public employees’ First Amendment rights protect them from forced unionization, paying union fees as non-members, or being compelled to agree with union talking points to keep their jobs.

In the words of Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the opinion

“When speech is compelled… individuals are coerced into betraying their convictions. Forcing free and independent individuals to endorse ideas they find objectionable is always demeaning… Compelling a person to subsidize the speech of other private speakers raises similar First Amendment concerns.”

In the months following the Janus decision, public unions nationwide saw their membership numbers fall precipitously as workers who were paying dues or so-called “agency fees” were no longer required to do so. Workers opted out of their public unions in droves, with some public unions losing nearly 10 percent of their total membership almost overnight. 

Unions responded to the dramatic loss of union revenue by working to squash worker rights in state legislatures across the nation. In the Golden State, union-backed Democrats passed Senate Bill 866. The bill, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on the very day of the Janus decision, prohibits a government employer from “deterring or discouraging” public employees from “becoming or remaining members” of a union or “authorizing dues or fee deduction to an employee organization.“ 

In other words, the unions moved to block government employers from notifying their employees that they have the right to opt out of their union under Janus. As a result, some government employers remain skittish about even acknowledging the existence of Janus for fear of being misconstrued as “discouraging” union membership.

That’s when California Policy Center stepped in. For the last five years since the Janus decision, CPC has partnered with pro-worker organizations across America, helped launch a website to help workers opt out of their unions, and targeted myriad union events with digital ads to inform government employees of their Janus rights.

As of 2023, CPC estimates that California’s government unions have lost a whopping 27.55% of all their possible members, costing unions as much as $377 million each year in lost dues revenue. 

Nationwide, public-sector union membership is down 10 percent since Janus, according to Maxford Nelsen of the Freedom Foundation, who found that an estimated 733,745 workers have left the four largest public-sector unions: National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and Service Employees International Union (SEIU). And this massive drop in union membership comes despite the hiring spree that many unions kicked off after receiving Covid relief funds from the federal government. 

Unlike union bosses, American workers have had a lot to celebrate in the five years since Janus. In addition to exercising their fundamental rights, the hundreds of thousands of government employees who have opted out of their unions have saved up to $1,000 dollars each year in union dues.

In fact, if a full-time employee paying $75 per month in union dues opted out of their union in 2018, they would have saved enough of their hard-earned income to: 

  • Invest in the S&P 500, yielding $6,425 today
  • Purchase a Disneyland Magic Key for 7 years
  • Adopt and care for a dog for 6 years
  • Pay off up to 10% of the average student loan
  • Take a 2-person, 8-day vacation to Hawaii, twice.

But the fight is far from over. Last month, California lawmakers introduced legislation that would hand unprecedented power to government unions.

State Senator Tom Umberg’s proposed Senate Constitutional Amendment 7 (SCA 7) — “The Right to Organize and Negotiate Act” — would create a constitutional right to “economic well-being” for government workers. The bill prohibits California state and local officials from taking any action “that interferes with, negates, or diminishes the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively.”

As former state Senator John Moorlach explains, “Democracy is gone if this passes.” 

Unions could argue that a wide range of government decisions would invoke SCA 7, from a decision by local government to close a school or build a road with nonunion labor and everything in between. SCA 7 will give public-sector unions what one employment law attorney describes as “the most exhaustive power of any branch of government.” 

“SCA 7 is part of a national effort on the part of government-union leaders in blue states,” writes California Policy Center president Will Swaim. A similar amendment was passed in Illinois and a copycat bill has been proposed in Pennsylvania. 

Make no mistake, this is a campaign by government unions to increase their membership and bolster their power in response to Janus. California is already experiencing a massive exodus of businesses and residents from the state. If SCA 7 were to become law, it would be the stake through the heart of once-golden California.

On the fifth anniversary of Janus, there’s a lot to celebrate — but the battle is far from won. 


Houston Reese is the Director of The Janus Project at California Policy Center.

If you or someone you know wants to leave their union, visit

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