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.
The dissent was written by Justice Kagan and joined by Justice Sotomayor, Justice Ginsberg, and Justice Breyer. Justice Kagan expressed relief that Abood was not overturned completely, but warned that the ruling would have major implications for other public sector unions who try to represent home health care workers, a fast-growing employment sector across the country.
Indeed, the case poses not only problems for home health care workers who try to unionize, but potentially anyone down the road. While Harris v. Quinn did not overturn Abood, it could be considered the first of a thousand cuts that severely weaken unions and worker power. The “agency fee” has been a long-standing union tradition in order to prevent non-union workers from enjoying benefits won by unions without paying anything toward the union efforts. Without the agency fee, there is less incentive for workers to want to join unions, because few want to be the ones shouldering the cost burden by themselves. This results in unions becoming smaller and weaker, and less able to influence workplaces for the workers’ benefit. While this case may not have overturned Abood, it may simply be a warning of what lies ahead.
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