Just like their counterparts in the private sector, government workers have long been able to join unions, which then charge dues to cover expenses for services that include negotiating wages and advocating political action. And just like their private-sector counterparts, public employees who don’t want to join a union have been able to withhold dues while paying “agency fees” to cover the cost of bargaining for wages.
This week, the Supreme Court ruled that home-care workers in Illinois can’t be compelled to pay those fees. It is tempting to seek comfort in the limits of the decision.
The high court did not reject the right of public employees to organize unions. It did not strike down state laws that let unions collect fees from full-time public workers who don’t want to join. Nor did it overturn its 1977 opinion that upholds such laws. It’s not clear whether the ruling covers only Illinois’ home-care workers.
The court restricted its ruling to workers whose jobs appear to have more attributes of private contracting with individual clients than of public employment. Illinois home-care workers aren’t really public employees, it said, so it need not reach the question of whether public employees who don’t join a union or pay full dues must still pay their fair share to cover the cost of contract negotiations.
A full reading of the majority opinion is nevertheless chilling. Justice Samuel Alito may not have been ready to reach what sounds like his ultimate destination: invalidating mandatory agency fees for public employees. But his opinion attempts to map the route.
Merely seeking better wages and conditions, he suggested, is an inherently political act when the employer is the government. So compelling an employee to pay for that against his or her will violates the First Amendment, even if the employee is allowed not to join or pay full dues.
Justice Alito exposed his argument and laid out the route for defenders of public-employee unions, inviting them to follow it if they can. They should do so. Public employees aren’t always popular, but they should be able to negotiate their pay and workplace conditions, as other workers do.
Even with its limitation to the particular circumstances of home-care workers, the ruling is unfortunate. Many states have recognized the value of allowing disabled and elderly people to avoid costly nursing homes and remain at home, under the care of people who are appropriately compensated.
Those caregivers who don’t want to join their union shouldn’t have to. But they should at least be expected to pay for the benefits that they receive as a result of the union’s bargaining on their behalf.
— Los Angeles Times