Supreme Court Counsel Comes to UMN



Mitch Bendis

“I’m in this fight, I fight for theright to work because I love liberty. I love freedom.” Those words rang clear in the Presidents Room of Coffman Memorial Union last week as Aaron Solem addressed the crowd. Solem, a UMN graduate and lawyer for the National Right-to-Work Foundation, came back to his alma mater to discuss the relationship between unions and free speech.

Sponsored by the student organizations Collegians For A Constructive Tomorrow and Minnesota Students For Liberty, Solem spent the first half of his appearance explaining his work at the foundation and why he chose to work there. As he spoke about what he did for a living, a sense of pride could be heard in his voice; Solem declared the goals of the National Right to Work Foundation are to protect and expand employee rights against unionism. The foundation offers free legal aid to tens of thousands of workers in the United States, suing employers and unions on their behalf.

Solem largely focused on why he continues to fight for Right-to-Work legislation. In describing “right-to-work”, Solem touched on a common misconception associated with that kind of legislation: the belief that right to work laws hurt or take something away from unions. Not so, said Solem. In fact, he invoked his own spin on a classic line from the movie The Princess Bride when he said, “Right to work, I don’t think that means what you think it means.” In Solem’s view, right to work is about preserving the free speech of common employees. Right to work legislation frees employees from the overbearing presence of unions; it allows employees to represent themselves and negotiate with employers on their own terms.

However, Solem was no stranger to the other side of the argument. He was sympathetic to the cause of unions, repeatedly stating, “There is nothing inherently wrong with unions. I just like free choice, free from government coercion.” Several times during his talk he invoked the spirit of the Founding Fathers, arguing that forcing government employees to contribute union dues against their wishes burdens their first amendment rights. When asked about fair share fees, the dues non-union employees are forced to pay to said unions, Solem declared, “fair share violates the most precious liberty, working for a living.”

Last month, a lawsuit by the National Right to Work Foundation was approved to be argued in front of the Supreme Court. The lawsuit, Janus vs. AFSCME, includes Solem as a co-counselor for Janus. Solem framed his talk around the facts of this case as they relate to the broader discussion of unions in this country. The plaintiff, Janus, works for the state government of Illinois and is forced to pay fair share dues to the union to which he is not a part of. Illinois, Solem stated, has no right to work laws due to various deals with unions over the past several decades. With the state’s dire financial situation, the policy of forced-unionization is being heavily scrutinized. Soon, Solem and his coworkers will argue in front of the Supreme Court for Mark Janus’s right to work without having to associate with a union. “A victory in Janus,” Solem said, “would make all of America right to work.”

As the talk came to a close, one member of the audience described himself as a union worker. What followed was a short exchange between this man and Solem, two opposite sides of a contentious debate in voting booths and homes across this country. As they debated the role of unions in modern society, one comment by Solem stood out:

“I have no hate in my heart. You have an opinion and I have an opinion. Your opinion is valid, I just have a different view. I’m in this because of my love for the Constitution and freedom from government coercion.”