Courts

Supreme Court Ruling Chips Away at Public-Sector Unions


The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday that public-sector unions can’t levy mandatory fees on certain kinds of government workers it labeled “partial public employees,” a category that includes home health aides whose wages are paid by Medicaid.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., held that such workers cannot be required to pay union fees under “fair share” rules. Unlike regular public employees, Alito wrote, “personal assistants are almost entirely answerable to the customers, and not to the state.” His ruling preserves unions’ ability to impose automatic fee requirements on most unionized government workers but will limit the ability of public-sector unions effectively to organize in the fast-growing home-care industry.

Home-care work has been one of the few areas of major union growth in recent years. Because private-sector labor law excludes domestic workers and independent contractors, workers caring for kids, seniors, or disabled people at home have long lacked the collective bargaining rights available to teachers or basketball players. But in recent years, some states have declared those home workers whose work is regulated and funded by government programs, such as Medicaid, to be public-sector employees, putting them under the umbrella of such public-sector unions as the American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which had feared the court’s conservative majority would take the case, Harris v. Quinn, as an opportunity to wipe out mandatory union fees for all public workers.

The “Quinn” in the case is Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat; the “Harris” is home-care worker Pamela Harris, who is not covered by a union but could be. Backed by the anti-union National Right to Work Foundation, Harris argued that being required to pay for a union’s activities, which could include taking positions she disagreed with, would violate her First Amendment rights.

The case was a challenge to a 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which found that where the majority of workers have decided to unionize, public employees can be required to pay union fees, even if they don’t become members. In recent years, 24 states have passed “Right to Work” laws, under which unions can’t require such fees from workers in the private sector. The results have been ugly for organized labor. While the union is required to represent everyone equally, no one is required to contribute to the cost of that representation, a setup that effectively defunds the union, creates division among workers, and diverts time and resources to the task of just getting people to choose to pay dues.

Today’s ruling stopped short of instituting a national public-sector “Right to Work.” In his ruling, Alito determined that workers like Harris are “much different from public employees” and therefore should not be bound by Abood. But Alito repeatedly criticized the Abood ruling, calling it “questionable on several grounds”—language that leaves the door open for future challenges.

Eidelson is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington.

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