WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a damaging, though not devastating, blow to public sector unions 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 nonunion 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 unions have waned, particularly in the trades and manufacturing, labor groups have sought to bolster their numbers in service industries and health care while preserving their strong presence in government.
The Harris vs. 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 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 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 that 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 aid, 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 still can be required to pay representation fees, as long as those fees don’t go toward political purposes. The majority did not overturn that case, Abood vs. 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 decision to let Abood stand was correct. 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.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill Toland is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.