The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Feb. 26 in the case Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). If the court rules against the unions, so-called right-to-work laws would be nationalized for all public employees.

At issue, in this case, is whether a public employee can benefit from the work of contract negotiation and enforcement a union performs on his behalf without paying for it. Unions are legally required to negotiate on behalf of all workers, whether those workers belong to the union or not. The union must represent them in any contract enforcement decisions. Mark Janus is a child support specialist at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, and he chose not to join AFSCME. Because he disagrees with some of the union's positions, he said, he objects to paying the union's agency fees and sees it as a freedom of speech case.

In union parlance, Janus wants to become a "free rider," benefiting from services to which he did not contribute.

Janus' is an essentially libertarian argument, one that erroneously values his autonomy above the right of all workers to form a union and bring their collective voice to bear on issues of concern at their workplace. The amicus curiae brief filed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in this case, points out that Janus' case is "a misguided effort to protect one individual from government coercion [that] would leave only individuals to stand against government (or economic) coercion" (emphasis in the original).

The bishops' brief recognizes that a vibrant society needs intermediate social institutions, that the kind of freedom the Constitution aims to enshrine needs a vibrant civil society, that such freedom would be easily threatened if there were no civil society organizations standing between the full power of the state and individual citizens.