The U.S. Supreme Court poked a hole in the sails of public sector labor unions Monday in a ruling foes of forced unionization see as foundational for a later, larger triumph.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority in Harris v. Quinn, found Illinois cannot force taxpayer-subsidized home health care providers to pay union dues.
Pam Harris, the lead plaintiff, argued an Illinois requirement that she pay union dues violated her First Amendment rights. A five-justice majority agreed, overturning lower court decisions.
“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 that he or she does not wish to support,” Alito wrote.
Altio and the court’s four more conservative justices did not deem forced union dues among public sector workers unconstitutional, as the plaintiffs’ lawyers urged and as some court-watchers anticipated, finding Illinois' 20,000 or so home-care providers are not technically state employees.
The majority did, however, undermine the court’s 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision, which allows forced dues-collection by public sector unions so long as objectors’ payments don’t go to political or ideological use.
“The Abood Court’s analysis is questionable on several grounds,” Alito wrote, describing it as unsoundly moored and blind to administrative realities and the nature of public-sector work.
“In the public sector, core issues such as wages, pensions, and benefits are important political issues, but that is generally not so in the private sector,” Alito wrote. “In the years since Abood, as state and local expenditures on employee wages and benefits have mushroomed, the importance of the difference between bargaining in the public and private sectors has been driven home.”
The majority’s qualms about Abood lay the groundwork for a larger legal fight, says Patrick Semmens, vice president at the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which funded the Harris lawsuit.
“Head-on challenges to forced union dues are going to be coming,” Semmens tells U.S. News. “If we have workers who want to take that fight on we’re willing to provide free legal aid. It definitely seems like this court is willing to hear that case.”
The Harris decision comes two years ago after the court took another swipe at public-sector unions in Knox v. Service Employees International Union. In Knox a seven-justice majority led by Altio found unions must notify members of fee increases for political campaigns and allow them to opt out.
“Twice they’ve talked about Abood and forced union dues as an anomaly under the First Amendment and you can only talk about an anomaly so long before you confront it,” Semmens says.
Seemens says his group is willing to go to court to toss forced-dues requirements for home-care providers in the dozen states that have policies similar to those in Illinois.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents some Illinois home care providers, denounced the Harris ruling.
"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,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry in a statement. “For our parents and grandparents to get the care they need to live at home, workers need a strong voice in a union."
SEIU said unionization is the only way to maintain “a stable, qualified workforce to meet the growing need for home care.”
Harris, the lead plaintiff, sees it differently.
“We celebrate knowing that Illinois moms linked arms and refused to be bullied," Harris said in a statement. "Families in Illinois can relax knowing their homes are safe from being a union workplace and there will be no third party intruding into the care we provide our disabled sons and daughters."