I Work with Mark Janus. Here’s How He Benefits from a Strong Union.

Donnie Killen May 11, 2018

AFSCME Council 31 picket at 160 N La Salle St. in Chicago, in support of collective bargaining and against Gov. Pat Quinn's attempt to break the union's contract.

Like every­one else in the labor move­ment, I’m ner­vous­ly await­ing the Supreme Court rul­ing in Janus v. AFSCME Coun­cil 31, which would weak­en pub­lic sec­tor unions by let­ting work­ers receive the ben­e­fits of rep­re­sen­ta­tion with­out con­tribut­ing toward the cost.

But I’ve got a unique van­tage point: I work in the same build­ing as the plain­tiff, Mark Janus.

We’re both child sup­port spe­cial­ists for the state of Illi­nois, where we do account­ing on child sup­port cas­es. I do this work because it’s ful­fill­ing to help kids and sin­gle par­ents get the resources they need to sup­port themselves.

What con­vinced Mr. Janus to join this destruc­tive law­suit? Your guess is as good as mine. I do know it’s much big­ger than him. He’s the pub­lic face, but this case is backed by a net­work of bil­lion­aires and cor­po­rate front groups like the Nation­al Right-to-Work Foundation.

But the truth is, even Mark Janus him­self ben­e­fits from union rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Here are a few of the ways:

1. With­out our union, Mr. Janus’s job would prob­a­bly have been out­sourced by now.

A dras­tic pro­vi­sion in the state’s last, best, and final offer” in 2016 would have giv­en Gov­er­nor Rauner the right to out­source and pri­va­tize state employ­ees’ jobs with­out account­abil­i­ty. Our union is all that’s pre­vent­ing crit­i­cal pub­lic ser­vices from being privatized.

Our agency would be at par­tic­u­lar risk, because Illi­nois already has a long­stand­ing con­tract with a scan­dal-rid­den, for-prof­it cor­po­ra­tion called Max­imus to per­form some of our agency’s func­tions. They mod­i­fy child sup­port orders and inter­act with employ­ers about income with­hold­ing — pret­ty sim­ple tasks, yet state employ­ees reg­u­lar­ly have to cor­rect their work. If they were to take over more com­plex tasks, we can imag­ine how bad­ly that would go! Their con­cern is for prof­it, not kids.

If the gov­er­nor could get away with it, it’s very like­ly he would expand the Max­imus con­tract to pri­va­tize jobs like mine and Mr. Janus’s. He already did some­thing sim­i­lar to nurs­es in the prison sys­tem. But our union has to be con­sult­ed before the state can out­source any­thing. And when they do out­source, we mon­i­tor the con­tract and dis­cuss how long it will con­tin­ue. I go to those meet­ings for our union. Right now, instead of let­ting man­age­ment expand its deal with Max­imus, we’ve been press­ing to cut that contract.

2. Mr. Janus has received $17,000 in union-nego­ti­at­ed raises.

Over his years work­ing for the state, Mr. Janus has earned gen­er­al wage increas­es and steps that would not have been guar­an­teed if not for the union.

3. The pub­lic — includ­ing the par­ents and kids Mr. Janus serves — has access to resources like child­care that our union has fought to defend.

Our union allows us speak up togeth­er on mat­ters far beyond mon­ey. When Gov­er­nor Rauner tried to cut child­care ben­e­fits for low-income sin­gle par­ents, we teamed up with out­raged com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and made him back off. And when the bud­get impasse was forc­ing domes­tic vio­lence shel­ters to close their doors, we kept push­ing for years until a veto-proof bud­get was passed.

4. Our union blocked the employ­er from dou­bling the cost of Mr. Janus’s health benefits.

In nego­ti­a­tions the state has pushed to dou­ble our health insur­ance costs and dras­ti­cal­ly reduce cov­er­age. The employ­er declared impasse and walked away from the bar­gain­ing table. AFSCME took the mat­ter to the Labor Rela­tions Board and the courts — secur­ing a tem­po­rary restrain­ing order that pre­vents the gov­er­nor from impos­ing his extreme demands.

5. We make sure Mr. Janus’s office is warm in the win­ter and cool in the summer.

As a union we deal with health safe­ty issues large and small. In the depart­ment that res­cues chil­dren from house­hold abuse and neglect, we’re con­tin­u­al­ly push­ing for suf­fi­cient staffing. The stakes are high: one mem­ber was killed on the job after she went out on an urgent call alone.

Oth­er mat­ters are less dra­mat­ic. In state office build­ings we solve prob­lems like flood­ing, mold, leaky win­dows, and tox­ic pigeon feces. One build­ing had some­one creep­ing up on employ­ees in the park­ing lot, so we worked with man­age­ment to get bet­ter light­ing and secu­ri­ty patrols.

In the build­ing where Mr. Janus and I work, the heat­ing and cool­ing sys­tem is extreme­ly old. Twice a year they bring in a com­put­er from 1982 to switch from heat to air con­di­tion­ing for the sum­mer, and vice ver­sa for the win­ter. So when the weath­er fluc­tu­ates, we work to get portable heat­ing or cool­ing units deployed where they’re needed.

Many of these are ongo­ing issues, where our union acts as a watch­dog. We have a health and safe­ty chair on the union exec­u­tive board. Any time a prob­lem comes up, he starts by approach­ing man­age­ment to resolve it. If that doesn’t work, he can file an OSHA com­plaint plus a high-lev­el grievance.

6. Thanks to our union, Mr. Janus will retire with a pension.

Our union has fought to save the defined-pen­sion that Mr. Janus will receive upon retire­ment. A coali­tion of unions includ­ing AFSCME took the issue to court — and won. The Illi­nois Supreme Court ruled that employ­ees’ pen­sion ben­e­fits can­not be cut.

7. Mr. Janus can get sick and still have a job when he comes back.

Before this job I worked with­out a union, in the retail indus­try, where I expe­ri­enced what it means to be an at-will employ­ee. Three absences would cost an employ­ee their job — even if they called in sick and pro­vid­ed a doctor’s note.

8. Our union ensured that Mr. Janus could be fair­ly hired, regard­less of his politics.

In pub­lic ser­vice our ulti­mate boss­es are elect­ed offi­cials. There was a time in Illi­nois when to be hired or pro­mot­ed, you were expect­ed to make a con­tri­bu­tion to the polit­i­cal par­ty in pow­er. But a 1990 Supreme Court case called Rutan v. Repub­li­can Par­ty of Illi­nois put an end to that. Today our union enforces a triple-blind sys­tem for fair treat­ment in hir­ing and pro­mo­tions, mak­ing sure senior­i­ty is fol­lowed. It’s one more way that even Mr. Janus ben­e­fits from hav­ing a union on the job.

This arti­cle first appeared on Labor Notes.

Don­nie Killen is a child sup­port spe­cial­ist for the state of Illi­nois and vice president/​executive stew­ard of AFSCME Local 2600.
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