Fair Share? The Public Fight Between Public Unions and Mark Janus: How the Media Cover the Supreme Court Case Janus v. AFSCME


Using op-eds by liberal and conservative authors I analyzed how different media cover the Supreme Court case Janus v. the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 (AFSCME) and identified how they used journalistic frames to shape their arguments. I built upon existing research regarding how the media cover the labor movement and analyzed these op-eds through journalistic frames. I expected liberals to express a pro-labor stance by framing the issue through conflict and economic impact and conservatives to express anti-union views through human interest and morality frames; I predicted both will employ the responsibility frame roughly equally. The Supreme Court case focused on the issue of forced dues on non-union members and the free-rider issue which I expected to transition into an argument of free speech versus collective bargaining rights with an underlying focus on the issue of workers’ rights and corporate profits in the modern American economy. My research sought to answer three primary objectives: how do pro-labor and anti-union op-eds frame the case; how does the content of pro-labor arguments differ from anti-union arguments; and how does framing vary in liberal op-eds compared to conservative op-eds. In answering these three questions I determined how the Janus v. AFSCME case is covered by the media.


On February 26th, 2018, the Supreme Court heard the case Janus v. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. The plaintiff, Mark Janus is an Illinois social worker covered under a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the AFSCME who alleges that the “fair share” fees compelled under Illinois law are an unconstitutional violation of his first amendment right (Ivanova, 2018). Illinois is not a right to work state and therefore non-union members like Mr. Janus are compelled to pay fair share fees for collective bargaining work undertaken by unions that benefit union and non-union members alike. Right to work laws allow workers to opt out of paying “fair share” fees to a union at their workplace — even if those workers benefit from union bargaining and protections (Feigenbaum,  Hertel-Fernandez, and Williamson, 2018). Janus v. AFSCME, challenges a 1977 precedent – Abood v. Detroit Board of Education – that has allowed state and local government unions to compel non-union government employees to pay agency fees for collective bargaining work. Currently there are twenty-two states that are not right to work states. The Supreme Court has signaled it may be ready to overturn Abood with a similar situation having unfolded in the Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association prior to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia – that case ended in a 4-4 deadlock (Berg, 2018).

On the opposite end of this case are the unions which have seen dwindling resources and membership over the last fifty years (Dunn and Walker, 2016). Unions argue that “fair share” fees are a necessary part of the work they do on the behalf of employees. The 1977 Supreme Court case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education determined in a unanimous 9-0 ruling that non-members may be assessed agency fees to recover the costs of “collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment purposes” while mandating that objectors to union membership or policy may not have their dues used for other ideological or political purposes. This establishes a division between collective bargaining rights and politics in the eyes of the court. The plaintiff argues that everything government unions do is inherently political and there can be no division of union activities from political actions. Mr. Janus argues that because fair share fees collected from non-union members are going towards political actions his first amendment rights are being curtailed.

In matters where the court’s decision may overturn previously ruled cases the Supreme Court typically adheres to the theory of stare decisis. As defined in the decision Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises, stare decisispromotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process” (O’Donnell and Petty, 2015). Many legal scholars – both liberal and conservative – have argued that by deciding in favor of Janus’s argument, free speech and other first amendment workplace doctrines would be substantially undermined “were this Court to accede to petitioner’s request categorically to hold public-sector agency fees unconstitutional under the First Amendment” (Fried and Post, 2018).

The goal of my research is to determine how op-eds consider Janus v. AFSCME and how writers of these op-eds frame their arguments (Godefroidt, Berbers, and d’Haenens, 2016). My research addresses how the media considers the legal issues surrounding unions and how they utilize different frames to shape public opinion by reading through these op-eds, identifying which frames are used, and analyzing how these frames are used differently across the media spectrum.

Review of Literature

In the fifty year decline of unions much has been made of the forces that have gradually eroded the power and influence of unions. One factor that has received extensive consideration since the 1990s is the role of media and media coverage on the shaping of public opinion regarding union efforts. Biased journalism covering union stories has helped to dictate how the public responds to the labor movement and has played an important and extensive role in the decline of unions.

Unions and the labor movement are consistently placed in a negative light. Across several modes of media and news reporting – in films, cable news, newspapers, and in magazines, among other forms of media – unions are consistently associated with corruption, greed, and violence (Puette, 1992). The media play a powerful and instrumental role in setting the public agenda and shaping how the public encodes news information (Godefroidt, Berbers, and d’Haenens. 2016). Through dictating what gets covered and how it is covered the media have played an important role in how the public views unions. In terms of union coverage, the media often divide reporting into two overarching typologies: the collective voice face – positive media coverage – and the monopoly face – negative media coverage (Brimeyer, Byrne, Silva, 2016). Generally, the media choose to cover unions from an anti-union, monopoly, perspective. Some researchers argue that the dichotomy between the nature of the media as a business and the media as a journalistic institution has caused inherent bias in the way unions are portrayed and it’s this inherent bias that manipulates public opinion of unions.

Several researchers have built upon this work to study how negative press coverage shapes public opinion. Unions exists as distant institutions from the lives of many Americans. As a result, the news media, by choosing what to report and what to ignore, control how the public responds to unions. Often, the union issue is largely ignored and anti-union actions such as illegitimate union-related firings are either not reported on or are reported as isolated incidents, mitigating the potential for a harsher public reaction (Carreiro, 2005). When the news does report on unions the focus is often on strike related activities, something that sparks the strongest negative response from the public (Schmidt, 1993). The most common way that the news reports unions is from a consumerist perspective, creating “common ground” news stories between unions and their members and management and owners, undermining the union position by placing the labor movement by dismissing their demands (Lewis and Proffitt, 2014; Martin, 2004).


In order to determine how the media shape public opinion about labor unions and the labor movement I analyzed op-eds written by liberal and conservative authors from liberal, centrist, and conservative media outlets (Blake, 2014) covering the Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME.

I established two groupings of op-eds based on whether they were written by liberal – writing for The New York Times, Slate, The Washington Post, USA Today, and NBC News – or conservative authors – writing for Forbes, Fox News, Townhall.com, The Wall Street Journal, and Breitbart. Initially I sought to include centrist op-eds in my research but as my research evolved I decided not to focus on the partisan bent of news publications, focusing on the partisan bent of the authors of each article instead. I included USA Today and NBC News – centrist media platforms – in the liberal section of the op-eds. Op-ed authors can be organized by partisan bent on a left versus right political leaning. I sorted and analyzed op-ed exhibits accordingly.

I chose op-ed articles that focused solely on analysis of the court case and its potential impact and removed news stories about that case or articles that included coverage of other union related events. I kept the number of articles in each group roughly the same – eleven liberal and nine conservative – to guard against potential bias and tried to ensure that no ideology received more extensive attention than any other. I avoided multiple articles per author to avoid a bias towards the opinion of any one individual. I used Google.com to search for articles and used key search terms such as “Janus,” “American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees,” “AFSCME,” and “Janus v. AFSCME op-eds” to yield exhibits for analysis. I only considered op-eds from prominent and generally well known national publications. The date of publication for the sources that I used range from when the Supreme Court accepted the case in September, 2017, through a week after the case was heard, March 5th, 2018.

I analyzed my exhibits through the journalistic frames (Godefroidt, Berbers, and d’Haenens, 2016) of conflict, human interest, economic impact, morality, and responsibility. While this framework was originally established to analyze news articles and not op-ed pieces, I deemed it appropriate and useful to expand the framing method to analyze the op-eds in my exhibits. I assessed how each op-ed utilized these frames to set a pro-labor or anti-union agenda to shape public opinion in the argument that each exhibit made. Through the definitions set out regarding each frame (Godefroidt, Berbers, and d’Haenens, 2016) I identified those frames within the argument of each exhibit. Once each argument was combed through and the frames contained within each argument were identified I created subgroupings of pro-labor and anti-union perspectives across the Liberal and Conservative groups.

In my research I used five frames to analyze each article, excluding the national interest frame which I deemed to be more relevant to a discussion on foreign policy, not unions. I used the following definitions to analyze these exhibits. The conflict frame “highlights a conflict between individuals, groups, institutions and/or countries in the hope of capturing audiences interest” (Godefroidt, Berbers, and d’Haenens, 781). The human interest frame covers an “individual’s story or an emphasis on emotions, which adds to the narrative quality of the news” (781). The economic impact frame “presents an event or problem in terms of its economic repercussions on an individual, a group, an institution, a region, or a country” (781). The Responsibility frame “attributes responsibility to specific political governmental institutions, groups, or individuals for causing or solving a problem” (782). The morality frame is defined as “[putting] the topic in the context of religious tenets or moral prescriptions” (782).


Op-eds were analyzed on two levels: the first being a left-right split on how arguments on the left and right shaped their arguments; the second considered op-eds on pro-labor versus anti-union split across liberal and conservative lines. Pro-labor op-eds provide favorable or generally favorable coverage of the unions in this Supreme Court case by siding against Mark Janus compared to anti-union op-eds that are supportive of the plaintiff’s case and critical of unions.

Liberal authors rely heavily on economic impact, responsibility, and morality frames – followed by a lesser focus on human interest and conflict framing. Liberals generally made a similar argument to that of the Abood case –unions provide a fundamental level of workplace stability, are beneficial for workers in the collective bargaining they do on behalf of both members and non-members, and argued that fair-share fees were crucial in ensuring that unions remain solvent. Liberals use the responsibility frame to position the Supreme Court as a non-partisan institution responsible for protecting unions from partisan attacks. Liberal authors often deem the case preordained in favor of Janus, transitioning the responsibility frame to lament the partisan divisions that seem foregone conclusions in the case. Liberal arguments dismiss the argument made by Janus and conservatives, if they address it at all. Liberals instead deride Janus as a puppet controlled by dark money and special interest groups. Liberals utilize the morality frame in their constitutional arguments in favor of AFSCME, Council 31, with constitutional provisions supplanting religious tenets in the context of the case. Conflict and human interest are used to a much smaller degree and often focus on individual union members or Mr. Janus while conflict frames often relied on partisan or potential workplace conflict.

Conservative op-eds are decisively anti-union, with only one pro-union conservative op-ed. Compared to liberal sources, human interest is one of the more important frames utilized. I found that the differences between liberal op-eds and Conservative op-eds – beyond the pro-labor and anti-union stances that each respective group takes – can best be understood through the frames of conflict and morality. Liberal op-eds use the conflict frame by discussing how unions are a vital institution for keeping labor peace and that a decision in favor of Janus would ultimately upend that labor peace. Conservative sources take a different stance and argue that unions are not peace-makers but disruptive forces that clash against not only the economic productivity of the nation but make direct attacks on the political institutions of this country through attacks on the First Amendment.  Similarly, conservative op-eds and liberal op-eds clash in how each uses the morality frame. While pro-labor op-eds describe unions as crucial underpinnings of an economy that facilitates upward mobility and protects against wealth inequality, conservative anti-union op-eds denounce unions as violating the constitutional rights of non-members and violate free speech rights. In my research I found that conservative op-eds typically address the argument made by unions and the AFSCME, addressing this argument directly before providing a counterargument and pushing their own agenda. Conservatives employ fewer frames and are more concentrated on the frames they do use compared to liberals. The drop off between the number of times the most common frame is employed versus the least common frame is larger in liberal op-eds – economic impact is used six times compared to conflict which is used twice – than it is in conservative op-eds – human interest is used four times where conflict is used twice.

In order to provide a bit of diversity within the Liberal and Conservative collections of exhibits I specifically selected one liberal article from the Washington Post that was anti-union and one conservative article from the Wall Street Journal that was pro-union. I found that both articles rely on the economic impact frame in their articles. The Washington Post draws attention to the idea that unions have made government bigger, costlier and more complex — and more beholden, politically, to its own workforce. The article by the Wall Street Journal also employs the economic impact frame. The Wall Street Journal article provides a broader analysis of the case but ultimately was more favorable to the union case. While recognizing the arguments that other conservative op-eds make – that agency fees are a violation of the First Amendment – the Wall Street Journal article rejects this by recognizing that agency fees are critical to public unions and that the arguments conservatives make are not “an accurate view of the world.” In the op-eds by the Washington Post Editorial Board and the Wall Street Journal article by Jess Bravin unions are questioned and concerns about union power are raised before the op-eds ultimately rebuff those concerns and settle on a favorable stance towards unions. In the anti-union Washington Post article by Charles Lane the argument is more centered and acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments of both sides before Lane ultimately sides against the unions rather than supporting Mr. Janus’s argument.

Economic Impact Morality Responsibility Conflict Human Interest
Liberal 6 4 5 2 3
Conservative 3 3 0 2 4
Total 9 7 5 4 7

Number of times a frame was employed within each grouping of sources


         The findings of my research paper ultimately demonstrate a clear partisan division over the issue of organized labor in the national news. While some publications offer a more nuanced approach – the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal weren’t decisively pro-labor or anti-union – the news media are generally uniform in their bias. Only three of the twenty op-eds from the ten news publications that I considered went against consensus by considering, or even siding with, the opposite side of the partisan divide. There was minimal overlap and general divisiveness in the stance that the op-eds took – foreshadowing what both liberal and conservative op-eds expect to be a 5-4 split in favor of Mr. Janus.

That said, the findings of my research do not confirm my initial hypotheses. My findings show that conflict was one of the least utilized frames in liberal articles where I expected to find that liberals would focus primarily on conflict and economic impact. Liberals only employed the conflict frame twice where the economic impact frame was used six times. Instead, the most commonly used frames for liberals were economic impact, morality, and responsibility. I expected that both liberals and conservatives would employ the responsibility frame but I found that conservatives never used the responsibility frame – it was only used by liberals. I expected to find that Conservatives would use the human interest and morality frames; I was correct in that initial assumption. Morality, human interest, and conflict were the most prominent frames for Conservatives.

Whereas some argue that the media provide a unified front against organized labor (Brimeyer, Silva, and Byrne, 2016), I found more nuanced results in my analysis of op-eds from the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times. The Wall Street Journal, while generally anti-union, did provide one pro-labor article, and the Washington Post, while generally pro-labor, did provide one anti-union op-ed and one other pro-labor op-ed criticized and questioned unions. The New York Times was uniformly pro-labor. The findings of my study that liberal news media are favorable to unions contradicts with other studies that have derided the media as staunchly anti-union due to its dual nature as a news reporting institution and a corporation (Brimeyer, Silva, Byrne, 2016. Martin, 2004. Puette, 1992).

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a bias against unions, however. I had a difficult time finding op-eds about this case across media platforms. Regardless of liberal, conservative, or centrist media platforms, the number of articles written about this case was particularly low. As some researchers have noted (Lewis & Proffitt, 2014. Schmidt, 1993) the media rarely choose to focus on the issue of organized labor, providing less coverage on the union side of the labor debate. The consensus among liberal op-eds may be pro-labor but the minimal attention paid to such an important court case mitigates the influence that these pro-labor articles may have on the public.

The limitations of my research are largely reflected through sampling. While I sought to include a representative sample of liberal and conservative articles in my research, the small number of op-eds – twenty – may have exacerbated preexisting flaws in the minimal amount of attention that this court case received. Narrowing the amount of news publications I considered to a collection of national and well-known online publications precludes an assessment of the influence of local media on the issue of organized labor. Further research may be needed, particularly an assessment of the influence of local media on unions.


The central aim of my research was to provide an insight into how the media is shaping the public debate about the Supreme Court case, Janus v. The AFSCME. My research sought to answer three primary objectives: how do pro-labor and anti-union op-eds frame the case; how do pro-labor articles differ from anti-union articles in how they frame the case; and which frames are most commonly employed in liberal op-eds compared to conservative op-eds. While I sought to reflect broader media trends, the limited number of sources included in my study and other limitations of my research should encourage further research in the academic community.


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Dunn, M. and Walker, J. (September, 2016). Union Membership in the United States.         https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2016/union-membership-in-the-united-states/pdf/union- membership-in-the-united-states.pdf

Feigenbaum, J., Hertel-Fernandez, A., and Williamson, V. (March, 2018). Right-to-work laws        have devastated unions – and Democrats. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/08 opinion/conor-lamb-unions-pennsylvania.html

Fried, C. and Post, R. (2018). Amici curiae in support of neither party, Mark Janus v.         AFSCME, Council 31, No. 16-1466

Godefroidt, A., Berbers, A., and d’Haenens, L. (2016). What’s in a frame? A comparative content analysis of American, British, French, and Russian news articles. The      International Communication Gazette. Vol. 78(8) 777–801. doi:      10.1177/1748048516640482

Ivanova, I. (February, 2018). Janus v. AFSCME, which could decide public unions’ fate, comes      to Supreme Court. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-case-that-could-change-the-face-           of-unions-comes-to-supreme-court/

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Schmidt, D. (1993). Public opinion and media coverage of labor unions. Journal of Labor Research. Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 151–164 doi: 10.1007/BF02685662



New York Times


Washington Post


NBC News

USA Today




·      Millsap, Adam, “Why Supreme Court may rule against unions and what it means for state and local finances” – Feb. 26th, 2018

·      Leef, George, “Janus v. AFSCME: Perhaps this time the Court will take the First Amendment seriously” – March 2nd, 2018

Fox News



Wall Street Journal