I watched as the microphone I had clipped to my interviewee's coat was suddenly yanked off, and she was silenced by a well-dressed woman with the teacher's union who had approached us. We were standing in front of the Supreme Court having a conversation about free speech and unions.
My interviewee was also a teacher's union supporter - but she wasn't supposed to talk. She was bewildered and so was I.
Let that sink in.
Oral arguments kicked off in Janus v. AFSCME on Monday with groups supporting both sides.
I pushed into the anti-Janus crowd to try for an interview. I spied Cynthia Collins, a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), who was dressed head to toe in purple and gold union gear - hat, coat everything. I asked about her fears for workers in the Janus case and about the nature of this rally and how it seems like people didn't want to talk - to media or to each other - and I'd never dealt with anything quite like it.
She responded, "People fail to realize that - "
And suddenly, a well-dressed woman walked up and un-clipped the microphone on her jacket.
I noticed this woman approach earlier, taking photos as we were talking.
"Can I borrow you for a second? One second. Yes. I just...," she said, hustling Collins away.
I stood there dumbfounded.
I've reported from riots with helmets and gas masks and I have never seen such a violation of free speech on the part of a protester in my life. Judging by the fact that I was standing on the "anti-Janus" side of the protest, she is a union member who didn't want another union member to say something that sounded bad.
The irony of the situation is mind-boggling.
Cynthia Collins and I were speaking about a case in which the union argues that membership doesn't violate the right to free speech.
And its a shame. I was going to ask her about the potential ground shift we may see in unions. If bargaining power drops, what can unions do? What is the solution? Where does the conversation go?
But our conversation went nowhere, and that is very scary.
JANUS V. AFSCME
Janus, a child support specialist for the state of Illinois, is suing the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The AFSCME is made up of 34 hundred local unions representing 1.6 million members. The state of Illinois allows unions like AFSCME to automatically charge fees of public sector employees like Janus. He argues that forcing him to pay those fees violates his right to free speech and association because union money is used for political causes and campaign contributions he may not be in agreement with.
Janus supporters claim that members are paying for more than the cost of contract negotiations, that they are also footing the bill for the cost of clout - the political kind. Political clout comes with political contributions to candidates and special interests that they may not want to support.
UNION PUSH BACK
The unions argue that an employee working under a union-negotiated contract should contribute to the union that negotiated it with "agency fees", as compulsory dues are often called. Many in opposition to Janus say this is a straight up assault on labor, that support of Janus is collusion with big business and that unions are there to protect workers.
When I arrived at the Supreme Court on Monday, the line to hear arguments snaked around the building. The sidewalk out front had Janus supporters stationed on one side, and those in opposition stationed on the left.
Terry Bowman came down from Michigan to hear the oral arguments. He has worked 21 years for the Ford plant back home and is represented by United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). He says he's got no problem with unions getting less money.
"With less workers paying dues - no matter how large or small it makes unions - officials re-evaluate what they've been doing over the years and say 'you know what?' maybe we need to get back to our core values and that is to represent the worker in the workplace and maybe get away from a lot of this divisive political activity."
A retired teacher's union member over heard me complaining about Janus opposers not wanting to talk. Jeralle Smith rolled her eyes, "Well I'll talk to you," she said. Smith lives in Texas, but taught for years in California schools and is a retired union member. She says she supports Janus, "I would like to see individual people have absolute control over their political voice. If their union money needs to go for negotiations that's one thing. But I mean the bottom line is freedom. And as somebody who's been speaking out inside the union and the Conservative Educators Caucus for 15 years, I have been shut down and my friends have been shut out for 15 years."
For those who oppose Janus, there is a real fear that losing revenue loosens the reigns of union power, which will eventually slip out of worker's grasp threatening bargaining power. So how do you gain any control after that? If the court decides in favor of Janus, the financial power of public -sector unions would drop and private sector unions could follow.