The AFSCME vs. Janus Supreme Court decision is not just the work of its plaintiff, Mark Janus: It’s the product of a well-financed and powerful anti-union machine, bankrolled and politically backed by the likes of the Koch family, billionaire Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, the American Legislative Exchange Council and many, many others.
While he might just be a figurehead, for many members of AFSCME Local 2600, Mark Janus is also a former coworker. And those union members have no choice but to grapple with the intensely personal aspects of the case, in which Mark Janus — a Springfield, Illinois-based child support specialist — successfully charged that workers have a First Amendment right not to chip in for their unions’ bargaining services. Members had to watch a coworker who had spent years benefiting from his AFSCME contract strike a major financial blow against their union and all public-sector unions nationwide.
So, when news broke that Mark Janus was leaving his job to work for the Illinois Policy Institute — a conservative, anti-union think tank that helped take the Janus case to the Supreme Court — members of his union decided to respond with a bit of humor. On Friday, they threw Mark Janus a retirement party, complete with a cake that read, in frosting, “There is no union with ‘u.’” But because they declared it union members-only, the guest of honor was unable to attend.
In These Times spoke with Donnie Killen, a child support specialist, vice president and executive steward for AFSCME Local 2600 and chief steward for the building where Mark Janus worked. He explained why members decided to make this rebellious gesture — and why it’s important for workers to understand “the value of their union.”
Sarah Lazare: Can you tell me why your local decided to throw Mark Janus a retirement party?
Donnie Killen: Tuesday night we got word that Mark Janus announced he was retiring. A lot of members in my building are really upset at how this all went down and how he is making deals after he demanded his rights to not pay the union. We were trying to think of a way to have a positive spin for members’ morale. I thought of the idea to do a retirement party. We’d make it members-only so he couldn’t come.
We really need to build more value in membership [after Janus made payments optional]. We recently had our annual member picnic, and people had to sing member cards to come to the picnic. This is a way to show we appreciate their membership.
We had 76 members come to the retirement party, and we probably would have had more if we hadn’t run out of pizzas. We ran out of 21 pizzas. People really were excited at having some sort of show of comradery. I can’t say I’m shocked, but I was pleasantly surprised at how many people weren’t afraid to do this. We had three people sign [union membership] cards in order to come to the party.
Sarah: What message were you hoping to send?
Donnie: A union is a group of collective members. It is a comradery group that looks out for each other. This was showing we look out for our own, through offering something simple like pizzas. It really boosted morale in the building. I expected people to be upset, but they were extremely excited to have cake and socialize with one another, instead of having to watch him celebrate. The value really is building that feeling of a family, which unions used to be.
I think what it has done for his local is ramped up this feeling of comradery. And we make sure we continue to pass information to our members and show that we’re there for them. Now we have to really try even harder, because you really don’t see that person who’s going to be the next governor’s pawn.
Sarah: How do you feel, personally, about Mark Janus?
Donnie: It was very insulting what he did. Myself and the other two stewards in the building did a very good job making sure members are informed and that their concerns were addressed. I was shocked to hear Mark was unhappy with his union when he had never approached us. He was the quietest person in the building. We never figured he had any problems. He was never in trouble. We were blindsided.
I saw him daily. When I leave the building at the end of the day, he’s usually right in front of me. We got off in the same time. He knew me as the union. He wasn’t hostile. It’s weird. I worked with Mark six years.
He was used. I don’t think he knew what he was getting into. The other two who joined the lawsuit at the beginning dropped off. The groups that were carrying him to the top in the name of First Amendment rights really played him.
Sarah: How does the membership feel about what Mark Janus did?
Donnie: Membership feels cheated. They know when they have a concern, they ask us and we address it. They don’t understand why he’d take that approach. They have this picture of him as a freeloader. He really wanted something for nothing. They know the value of their union.
Our membership is getting a lot younger. A lot of people retired during budget process. The new people are really seeing the value of a union.
The problem with freeloaders is wanting something for nothing. Everyone knows there’s no free lunch. But apparently, they believe they are owed one.
They know there are options for other jobs without union protection. But they want the protections and they want to give nothing for it. It plays into the hands of people who think state workers are lazy and don’t do any work. Freeloaders play right into that image. The labor movement as a whole needs money to fight cases, to file briefs, file cases with the board, be there and fight them. We can’t do that without money. It’s an environment where money is very important.
Right now, there’s a lot of the other side playing this game saying we were petty. This wasn’t about him. It was about uplifting our members — showing them the value of being a members of the union.
Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.