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SCOTUS: Public-sector unions can’t force nonstaff workers to pay dues

Harris v. Quinn decision could limit membership but spares traditional unions from brunt of damage

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that nontraditional employees in the public sector may not be compelled by a state to contribute union fees, dealing a blow to workers’ bodies that wanted to ensure that all staff — including nonsalaried positions such as home health aides — could be forced to pay dues. But the court spared unions the brunt of the damage that the case could have caused, by upholding that fully fledged public employees may still be compelled to unionize.

The Harris v. Quinn ruling [PDF] means that part-time and nontraditional government employees, like home health care workers, won’t be forced to pay into unions as a condition of their employment.  

The ruling — which came down in a 5-4 decision, with conservative Justice Samuel Alito delivering the majority opinion — comes after eight home health care workers refused to join an Illinois union and pay the corresponding dues. But under state law, joining the union was required for their employment. The eight filed a class action against Illinois in 2010, arguing that being forced to pay into a union as a condition of their employment violated their First Amendment rights to freedom of association.

As the case worked its way up the court system — with both state and federal appeals courts siding with the existing law — the suit ballooned from a small class action into one that had the potential to affect every public-sector union in the country.

“This scheme, which forced parents and other relatives taking care of persons with disabilities into union political association was a slap in the face of fundamental American principles we hold dear,” Mark Mix, president of the conservative National Right to Work Foundation said in a statement. “We applaud these home care providers’ effort to convince the Supreme Court to strike down this constitutionally dubious scheme, thus freeing thousands of home care providers from unwanted union control.”

The Supreme Court ruled that while public sector unions may act like private sector employers and collect mandatory dues from most employees, partial employees like home health care workers may not be forced to join a union.

The distinction comes down to how employees are paid. Most public employees receive a salary from their employers, but home health care workers, for example, are not considered employees of the state because while they might receive payment in the form of Medicare or Medicaid, they are hired and fired by individuals and not by the government.

To labor groups, the distinction is a dubious one. They point out that home health care workers and other temporary and nontraditional employees are some of the fastest growing sectors of employment and that those workers aren’t afforded the protections of many labor laws and therefore need the protection of unions.

“At a time when wages remain stagnant and income inequality is out of control, joining together in a union is the only proven way home care workers have of improving their lives and the lives of the people they care for,” SEIU president Mary Kay Henry said in a statement.

Even more troubling for labor groups, Alito seems to have paved the way for further union-weakening decisions in the future.

In its deliberations, the Supreme Court could have overruled a 1967 case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which upheld that public unions, just like their private counterparts, may collect mandatory dues. While the justices spared that decision on Monday, Alito harshly criticized Abood in his remarks, saying the case “fundamentally misunderstood” the precedents it was based on.

Undermining the rationale for Abood now could allow the justices to completely devastate public-sector unions in a future case by ruling that just like home health care workers, government workers may not be forced to pay union dues.

While Harris v. Quinn was started by a small group of people, large special interests were invested in the case. On one side were big unions with an interest in requiring state employees to pay dues, as well as the Illinois government and the U.S. federal government, whose representatives believed maintaining their current relationship with unions is mutually beneficial.

On the other side was a collection of groups with conservative ties, most notably the National Right to Work Foundation, which was founded in 1968 to fight compulsory union dues and other aspects of union membership. While the foundation keeps its donor list private, it has been linked to billionaire conservative megadonors Charles and David Koch.

The National Right to Work Foundation and its allies contend that it is wrong to consider home aides state employees. And they say that requiring anyone — whether a home caregiver or a more traditional union employee — to pay such fees violates First Amendment rights.

“Union power achieved through forcing employees to associate with the union or to pay monies to the union should be seen as illegitimate,” Patrick Semmens, vice president of the foundation, said in a news release in January. “The idea that in order for a citizen to work for their government, they can be forced to subsidize the speech of a private organization for representation they don’t want and never asked for is contrary to the very core of the First Amendment.”

The White House responded to the decision by saying it would continue to support collective bargaining rights.

"The collective bargaining model in Illinois resulted in fairer pay and benefits for hardworking caregivers as well as improved training, safety and health protections, and tools to help those who need care to find it," it said in a statement. "The Court’s decision will not only make it significantly harder for these dedicated employees to get a fair shake in exchange for their hard work, but will make it harder for states and cities to ensure the elderly and Americans with disabilities get the care they need and deserve."

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