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SCOTUS rules public union can't make nonmembers pay fees

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The Supreme Court dealt a blow to public sector unions Monday, ruling that thousands of home health care workers in Illinois cannot be required to pay fees that help cover the union's costs of collective bargaining.

In a 5-4 split along ideological lines, the justices said the practice violates the First Amendment rights of nonmembers who disagree with the positions that unions take.

The ruling is a setback for labor unions that have bolstered their ranks — and bank accounts — in Illinois and other states by signing up hundreds of thousands of in-home care workers. It could lead to an exodus of members who will have little incentive to pay dues if nonmembers don't have to share the burden of union costs.

But the ruling was limited to this particular segment of workers and it stopped short of overturning decades of practice that has generally allowed public sector unions of teachers, firefighters and other government workers to pass through their representation costs to nonmembers.

Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said home care workers "are different from full-fledged public employees" because they work primarily for their disabled or elderly customers and do not have most of the rights and benefits of state employees. The ruling does not affect private sector workers.

The case involves about 26,000 Illinois workers who provide home care for disabled people and are paid with Medicaid funds administered by the state. In 2003, the state passed a measure deeming the workers state employees eligible for collective bargaining.

A majority of the workers then selected the Service Employees International Union to negotiate with the state to increase wages, improve health benefits and set up training programs. Those workers who chose not to join the union had to pay proportional "fair share" fees to cover collective bargaining and other administration costs.

A group of workers led by Pamela Harris — a home health aide who cares for her disabled son at home — filed a lawsuit arguing the fees violate the First Amendment. Backed by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the workers said it wasn't fair to make someone pay fees to a group that takes positions the fee-payer disagrees with.

The workers argue they are not government employees capable of being unionized in the traditional sense. They are different, they say, because they work in people's homes, not on government property, and are not supervised by other state employees. And they say the union is not merely seeking higher wages, but making a political push for expansion of Medicaid payments.

Alito agreed, saying "it is impossible to argue that the level of Medicaid funding (or, for that matter, state spending for employee benefits in general) is not a matter of great public concern."

The workers had urged the justices to go even farther and overturn a 1977 Supreme Court decision which held that public employees who choose not to join a union can still be required to pay representation fees, as long as those fees don't go toward political purposes. About half of the states require these fair-share fees.

Alito said the court was not overturning that case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which is confined "to full-fledged state employees." But he said that extending Abood to include "partial-public employees, quasi-public employees, or simply private employees would invite problems."

The court's limited ruling means public unions avoided a potentially devastating blow that could have meant a major drop in public employee membership ranks.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent for the four liberal justices. Kagan said the majority's decision to leave the older case in place is "cause for satisfaction, though hardly applause."

Kagan agreed with the state's arguments that home care workers should be treated the same as other public workers because Illinois sets their salaries, resolves disputes over pay, conducts performance reviews and enforces the terms of employment contracts.

"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," Kagan said.

A federal district court and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had rejected the lawsuit, citing the high court's precedent.

Nine other states have allowed home care workers to join unions: California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
 

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  1. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  2. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  3. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

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  5. This article proved very enlightening. Right ahead of sitting the LSAT for the first time, I felt a sense of relief that a score of 141 was admitted to an Indiana Law School and did well under unique circumstances. While my GPA is currently 3.91 I fear standardized testing and hope that I too will get a good enough grade for acceptance here at home. Thanks so much for this informative post.

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