The U.S. Supreme Court chipped away at government-employee union power on Monday by ruling that Illinois home-support workers paid with public money can reject union membership.
Although the court narrowly drew its Harris v. Quinn decision, the anti-union group that backed the lawsuit said it believes the ruling applies to California and 11 other states that compel millions of dollars in union dues from state-paid workers providing assistance to seniors and the disabled who otherwise would have to live in a care facility.
“We hope the unions will instantly drop any forced dues,” said Patrick Simmons of the Virginia-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which was on the winning side of Monday’s ruling. “But that probably won’t happen.”
Doug Moore, executive director of the 65,000-member United Domestic Workers of America, blasted the 5-4 decision as the latest attack on the working class by “billionaires bent on dividing workers for profits.”
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SEIU California State Council President Laphonza Butler said it would take time to sort out what, if anything, the court’s decision means for the Golden State. In the meantime, she said, “We have no intention of slowing down our organizing.”
The stakes for her union and others in California are enormous. No other state has as many government-paid in-home support services workers or clients. The industry has been a rich vein for union membership growth the last 15 years during a period when labor organization plummeted in the private sector.
State data show 419,111 Californians are eligible to provide living assistance to people who otherwise could not live at home. About 450,000 Californians qualify for services.
SEIU California, for example, represents about 250,000 workers, Butler told reporters on Monday. Member dues run $30 per month. That means about $9 million per year flow into SEIU’s coffers from workers who in many instances earn less than $10 per hour. Other unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, represent the balance of state support-services workers.
About seven in 10 of the workers are relatives caring for family members.
Now Harris v. Quinn raises questions about whether those workers must pay anything to the union.
The case emerged in 2011 when Pamela Harris, who was caring for her disabled son, 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 and other anti-labor groups hoped the court would go further and overturn a 37-year-old precedent that requires unionized public employees to pay a fee to cover nonpolitical benefits of union membership, such as contract bargaining and grievance services. The 1977 Supreme Court ruling said that such payments, known as “fair-share fees,” maintain labor peace and keep non-dues-paying workers from freeloading on the contributions of members who voluntarily pay dues.
The foundation argued that forcing public workers to pay fees for anything violated their free-speech rights because everything public employee unions do is political in nature. Under that view, collective bargaining for salary is an effort to shape public policy. Had the court agreed, it would have dealt a more severe blow to labor.
Instead, the court’s Monday decision split public employees into two groups. “Full-fledged” public employees have to pay fair-share fees, the court said, defining that group as workers whose hiring, duties, workplace rights and termination are all subject to state action. Harris and the other plaintiffs aren’t really public employees, the court ruled, because they are hired and fired by the people they serve, not the state.
That has “important practical implications,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority. If a home assistant is fired for stealing a fork or discharged for showing “no interest in the customer’s favorite daytime soaps,” the union can’t file a grievance. Likewise, the state assumes no responsibility.
Therefore, Alito concluded, since the 1977 ruling applied only to full-fledged public employees, it doesn’t apply to in-home aides because they’re not really public employees.
Although the court didn’t obliterate compulsory public union contributions, the decision left the doctrine considerably weakened, experts said, pointing to lines such as, “except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”
Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, D.C., said he thinks the court’s decision anticipates another case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which contends that teachers and other public employees have a right to choose whether to join a union and contribute to its political efforts.
The center is pressing the case, which is now before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Pell said the circuit court could rule in time for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by early 2015. If that happens, the high court could weigh in by this time next year.
“I think that the decision today was really a preview of what the next case is going to look like,” Pell said. “Justice Alito put in a lot of arguments about what the next decision was going to look like. It appeared he was thinking strategically. He did us a big favor.”
Meanwhile, the Harris decision will likely spawn more litigation as unions and anti-labor interests probe its application, said Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a labor law and history expert at UCLA.
“There will be more court challenges,” Mitchell said. “It’s full employment for lawyers.”