The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a damaging, though not devastating, blow to public sector unions on Monday, ruling that Illinois home health care workers can’t be required to pay fees that help cover the union’s costs of collective bargaining.
In the 5-4 split decision, the Supreme Court ruled that “partial public employees” can’t be required to contribute union bargaining service charges, because compelling such contributions violates the First Amendment rights of non-union employees who might disagree with the union’s political positions.
“If we accepted Illinois’ argument, we would approve an unprecedented violation of the bedrock principle that, except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.
As union representation rates have waned over the decades, particularly in the trades and manufacturing, labor groups are looking to bolster their numbers in service industries and health care while preserving their strong presence in local, state and federal government.
The Harris v. Quinn ruling did not restrict unions’ ability to collect bargaining fees from more traditional public sector employees. That day could come, though, if the court keeps its current make-up.
“The Supreme Court turned back the clock on hundreds of thousands of home care and child care workers who have been able to improve their work lives through collective bargaining, [via] union contracts that include anti-free rider provisions,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates for low-income households.
Those who benefit from the union’s collective bargaining but don’t wish to contribute fees that help pay for that bargaining representation are the so-called “free riders.”
The case in Illinois involves about 26,000 health workers who provide home care for disabled people and are paid with Medicaid funds the state administers. In many ways, they work as independent contractors; they have no bosses or workplace to report to, and often they are caring for their own kin. But in 2003, the state passed a measure saying such workers are state employees and eligible to bargain collectively.
Afterward, workers selected the Service Employees International Union to represent them on pay and benefits issues, but those workers who chose not to become union members still had to pay proportional “fair share” fees to cover collective bargaining and other administration costs.
A group of workers led by Pamela Harris, a health aide who cares for her disabled son at home, filed a lawsuit arguing the fees violate the First Amendment.
With National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation backing, the workers said it wasn’t fair to make someone pay fees to a group that takes positions the fee-payer disagrees with.
The workers had urged the justices to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court decision, which held that public employees who choose not to join a union can still be required to pay representation fees, as long as those fees don’t go toward political purposes. The majority justices did not overturn that case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, but still sided with Ms. Harris and against the state of Illinois and its governor, Pat Quinn.
Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the dissent for the four liberal justices, said the majority’s decision to let Abood stand was the correct outcome. The case “is deeply entrenched” U.S. labor law “and is the foundation for not tens of or hundreds but thousands of contracts between unions and governments across the nation.”
Nine other states have allowed independent home care workers to join unions: California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. In Pennsylvania, home care workers may join unions, as well, but they must be employed by or affiliated with an existing company. SEIU Healthcare PA represents about 250 home care workers from Addus HealthCare and about 2,000 more through a joint venture with AFSCME, called the United Home Care Workers of Pennsylvania.
From the SEIU to the Communication Workers of America to the AFL-CIO, union heads said the Supreme Court had taken aim at America’s workers. “The extreme views of today’s Supreme Court aimed at home care workers aren’t just bad for unions; they’re bad for all workers and the middle class,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
Conservative groups said the Supreme Court’s thinking was not extreme but, rather, in step with that of American taxpayers, and the Pennsylvania-based Commonwealth Foundation said the ruling should give the state Legislature the cover it needs to pass its “paycheck protection” legislation, a GOP effort to prevent union dues from being automatically deducted from state workers’ paychecks via computerized payroll systems.
“Government union leaders can fight for higher taxes and special financial benefits all they want, but they shouldn’t be able to do so with taxpayer subsidies,” Commonwealth Foundation President Matthew J. Brouillette said in a statement.
Bill Toland: email@example.com or 412-263-2625. The Associated Press contributed.First Published June 30, 2014 12:00 AM