The State Worker

U.S. Supreme Court ruling avoids dismantling union-fee system

In a 5-4 ruling that split along philosophical lines, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said that Illinois home health workers paid with public money can reject union membership.

The implications for California and other states weren’t clear in the hours after the court issued its decision, legal experts and union officials said.

“There will be more court challenges” as unions and anti-labor groups nationwide probe the boundaries of the high court’s ruling, said Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a labor-law and history expert at UCLA. “It’s full employment for lawyers.”

Still, the ruling in Harris v. Quinn clearly stopped short of what unions feared by leaving in place a 37-year-old precedent that says public-sector workers can be compelled to pay unions for the cost of non-political representation in contract talks or workplace grievances. The 1977 high court ruling said that such payments, known as “fair-share fees,” maintained labor peace and kept non-dues-paying workers from freeloading on the contributions of members who voluntarily pay dues.

The current case surfaced in 2011, when Pamela Harris and eight other in-home care workers in Illinois said they didn’t want SEIU’s representation and shouldn’t have to pay any money to the union. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which won a 2012 Supreme Court case against SEIU Local 1000 over dues it illegally imposed on its members, had asked the court wipe out that former decision.

The court’s decision on Monday split public employees into two groups: home-health workers who are paid with tax dollars but hired and fired by the individuals they serve, and “full-fledged” public employees whose hiring, duties, workplace rights and termination are all subject to civil service. The 1977 decision supporting compulsory union payments applies only to full-fledged workers, the court said, not quasi-public employees such as home-health aides.

Harris v. Quinn

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