Supreme Court: Quasi-public workers can't be forced to pay union dues (+video)

'Partial public employees' cannot be compelled to pay dues to a labor organization, the US Supreme Court ruled Monday. The decision, concerning homecare workers in Illinois, undercuts the power of public-sector unions.

By , Staff writer

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    The Supreme Court building in Washington, Monday, June 30, 2014.
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In a decision that undercuts the financial and recruiting power of government employee unions, the US Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a state may not force “partial public employees” to pay fair-share dues to a labor organization.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court said employees who are not full-fledged government workers enjoy First Amendment protection against being compelled to financially support a union as a condition of employment.

In reaching its decision, the high court embraced an argument by a group of homecare workers in Illinois that being forced to support a labor union through compelled dues payments violates their right to free speech and association.

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“The First Amendment prohibits the collection of an agency fee from personal assistants in [Illinois’ Rehabilitation Program] who do not want to join or support the union,” Justice Samuel Alito said in the majority opinion.

In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan criticized the majority justices’ expansive interpretation of First Amendment principles in the context of public employment. 

“Our decisions have long afforded government entities broad latitude to manage their workforces, even when that affects speech they could not regulate in other contexts,” she said. The high court stopped short of depriving every state and local government of using fair-share dues to support collective bargaining by a union, she said. But the majority justices “robbed Illinois of that choice in administering its in-home care program.”

The suit was litigated by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and was seen as a potential dagger pointed at the heart of public-employee unions nationwide.

The justices had been asked to strike down a 36-year legal precedent that permits the imposition of fair-share dues for public employees who decline to join a union.

Rather than overturn that precedent, the majority justices said the prior ruling did not apply to the circumstances of the Illinois workers because homecare workers there are not full-fledged government employees like firefighters or teachers.

Nonetheless, the decision marks a setback for public unions such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

In recent years, such unions have found fertile ground for recruitment among quasi-public employees, including homecare workers under the Medicaid program. Analysts say the ruling endangers similar fair-share union dues arrangements in 18 other states.

The decision is also significant because it represents a continuation of a trend in the high court’s jurisprudence of enforcing a robust reading of the First Amendment’s protections in the face of government policies that the court concludes undercut those freedoms.

At issue in the Illinois case was a requirement that homecare workers who refuse to join the union must nonetheless pay “fair share” dues to support the union’s collective bargaining on wages, hours, and workplace conditions.

Many of those receiving homecare subsidies under the Medicaid program are caring for a disabled family member in their own home. Some objected to being forced to associate with and fund a labor union.

The “fair share” requirement is designed to prevent nonunion workers from free-riding on the benefits won by union negotiators and paid for by union-member dues. Because nonunion members benefit from the union’s collective bargaining agreements, they should help pay for those activities, union supporters insist.

There was no requirement that nonmembers support a union’s political activities.

The court’s decision does not apply to full-fledged public employees such as teachers, firefighters, and police officers. It also does not apply to unions in the private sector.

Pam Harris, one of the homecare workers who filed the underlying lawsuit, praised the high court’s decision.

“We celebrate knowing that Illinois moms linked arms and refused to be bullied,” Ms. 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.” 

Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation, said he is pleased by the decision. “This scheme, which forced parents and other relatives taking care of persons with disabilities into union political association, was a slap in the face of fundamental American principles we hold dear,” he said in a statement.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont blasted the high court's decision as “another attack on the rights of workers to collectively bargain for higher wages and decent benefits.”

“Make no mistake,” Senator Sanders said in a statement, “this decision will lead to an increase in income inequality, a further decline in the wages of middle-class workers, and an increase in poverty.” He added: “Over the past decade, the wages of both union and non-union home health aides in Illinois have nearly doubled as a result of collective bargaining.”

“This ruling is a victory for the workers, most of whom are taking care of disabled relatives in their own homes,” said Deborah LaFetra, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, in a statement. “The court correctly rejected a public employee union’s attempt to dragoon home healthcare workers and garnish their Medicaid payments.”

There are an estimated 26,000 homecare workers in Illinois. They are represented by the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois & Indiana.

According to analysts, the union has taken in between $3.6 million and $10.4 million a year in dues.

Monday’s ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by eight homecare providers in Illinois whose work is funded via the Medicaid program. All but one of the plaintiffs are caring for a disabled family member.

The homecare program is designed to encourage cost efficiencies by avoiding institutionalizing individuals when home care can be provided at lower expense. It is jointly funded by the federal and state governments and is run by the state. Homecare workers are hired by each care recipient, but they are paid by the state.

Public unions view such workers as a promising source for new members and financial support. Proposals to unionize them in Illinois had been repeatedly rejected in the 1980s and 1990s, in part because state officials concluded that homecare workers were not, in fact, state employees.

That changed in 2003 when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich issued an executive order declaring that homecare workers are state employees. The state legislature also amended Illinois law to recognize them as public employees.

The workers later approved SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana as their exclusive representative. Critics complained that the union was too heavily engaged in politics.

Mr. Blagojevich’s executive order designating homecare workers as eligible for unionization came two months into his first term as governor. During his election campaign, Blagojevich received more than $821,000 in campaign contributions from the SEIU. The union was the second-largest contributor to his campaign.

During his reelection campaign in 2006, Blagojevich received at least $908,000 in campaign contributions from the SEIU. That year the union was his largest contributor.

In total, Blagojevich received more than $1.7 million in campaign contributions from the SEIU.

Blagojevich’s second term as governor was cut short by federal corruption charges. He was removed from office and convicted for allegedly running pay-to-play schemes providing jobs, contracts, and appointments in exchange for personal benefits and campaign contributions. Chief among the charges was that he sought to “sell” an appointment to President Obama’s vacant US Senate seat in exchange for a job and other personal rewards. He is serving a 14-year prison term in Colorado.

In 2009, after Blagojevich’s removal from office, the new governor, Pat Quinn, signed a similar executive order designed to expand union representation to a larger group of homecare workers.

In his campaign for governor in 2010, Quinn received $1.86 million in campaign contributions from SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana. 

Two unions vied for the right to exclusively represent the workers. They were SEIU Local 73 and AFSCME Council 31. The workers voted to reject both unions.

The case was Harris v. Quinn (11-681).

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