In a ruling that could endanger long-standing union practices, the United States Supreme Court determined that public employees cannot be required to join unions or pay dues in Harris v. Quinn.
The case involved home health care workers who provided services to Medicaid patients under the Illinois Home Services Program. The home health care workers were represented as a whole by the SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana, which entered collective bargaining agreements with the State that contained an agency fee provision. The agency fee provision required that all bargaining unit members that did not wish to join the union pay the union a fee for the cost of certain activities, such as collective bargaining and related activities. A group of home health care workers brought a lawsuit against the SEIU, claiming that the agency fee provision violated their First Amendment rights. While the district court dismissed their case, the Seventh Circuit ended up affirming parts of it, leading to a petition of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court found that the First Amendment prohibited the payment of agency fees by non-union members. The majority consisted of Justice Alito (who wrote the decision), Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, and Justice Kennedy. They found that long-standing union concerns about "free riders" were not sufficient to overcome First Amendment issues. In particular, Justice Alito argued that except under rare circumstances, no person should be allowed to subsidize another person's speech if he or she does not wish to do so. Although the majority did not overturn the 1977 Supreme Court decision Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which permitted public employees to pay the costs of collective bargaining, the justices left the case on shaky ground.