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The Supreme Court Just Dealt a Devastating Blow to Public Unions The Supreme Court Just Dealt a Devastating Blow to Public Unions

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The Supreme Court Just Dealt a Devastating Blow to Public Unions

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A banner showing the state of Wisconsin in the shape of a fist for union solidarity, July 28, 2011 during a protest on Capitol Hill.(KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision on Monday that mandatory public union dues violate some members' First Amendment rights.

The case, Harris v. Quinn, involves Pamela Harris, a home-caregiver in Illinois who takes care of her disabled son. Harris is among home caregivers who have decided not to unionize through the Service Employees International Union, opting instead to bargain directly with the Medicaid recipients who decide how much money to allocate to their caregivers.

 

The case posed a challenge to so-called "fair-play fees," which allow unions to collect dues from employees who aren't in the union but who still benefit from the bargains unions strike with employers.

In the case of public-sector unions, though, the employer is the government. And for that reason, the challengers in Harris argued, the unions' collective bargaining is inherently a political activity—unions are essentially lobbying the government.

The challengers said allowing public-sector unions to collect fair-play fees is therefore requiring nonunion employees to support political activities they don't necessarily agree with—a violation of their First Amendment rights.

 

Writing for the majority in the case of Harris v. Quinn, Justice Samuel Alito said that the precedent that had upheld the state of Illinois' right to require membership dues was shaky.

The Supreme Court's precedent on public unions, a 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, had found that nonunion members may be required to pay membership dues in exchange for collective bargaining.

"Abood itself has clear boundaries; it applies to public employees. Extending those boundaries to encompass partial-public employees, quasi-public employees, or simply private employees would invite problems," Alito wrote. "If we allowed Abood to be extended to those who are not full-fledged public employees, it would be hard to see just where to draw the line, and we therefore confine Abood's reach to full-fledged state employees."

In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan called Alito's comments "gratuitous" and "mistaken." She wrote that the Abood decision provided more than enough basis to uphold Illinois' law."

 

Monday's ruling means that hundreds of thousands of home caregivers—in Illinois and in other states—will be free to stop paying union membership dues, as they are effectively no longer considered public employees.

Harris v. Quinn has attracted its share of political attention from the right and the left. As The Washington Post's Lydia DePillis explains, GOP backers were friendly to Harris's cause:

Preserving her own right to not support a union, though, wasn't enough for Harris. With the help of the National Right to Work Coalition, an anti-labor group backed by large donors like the Koch and Walton families, she challenged the state's right to designate a union of public employees as their their sole representative. The right has been well settled in case law stretching back to the 1970s, and Harris lost in lower courts. But the Supreme Court took the case, indicating it might be willing to revisit the precedent.

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Public-sector unions have suffered many setbacks over the past few years—right-to-work laws in states such as Michigan and Indiana have drastically limited unions' ability to require members to pay dues. And in 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker set off a political firestorm when he stripped state workers of their right to bargain collectively.

The phrasing of Monday's ruling might ultimately be more troubling for public-sector unions than the outcome itself. Alito wrote that the challengers in this particular case weren't truly government employees, so the Court's past decisions on public unions didn't apply.

Although that doesn't directly chip away at the Court's earlier protections for purely public unions, Alito also said the Court's precedent relied on "questionable foundations"—a sign that the conservative justices might be willing to chip away further at public-sector unions in the future.

There may be one silver lining for public unions, though. The Harris v. Quinn ruling is somewhat narrowly tailored to home caregivers, known as PAs.

"PAs are much different from public employees," Alito wrote. "Unlike full-fledged public employees, PAs are almost entirely answerable to the customers and not to the State, do not enjoy most of the rights and benefits that inure to state employees, and are not indemnified by the State for claims against them arising from actions taken during the course of their employment. Even the scope of collective bargaining on their behalf is sharply limited."

Public unions like the American Federation of Teachers quickly derided the ruling. "While the court upheld the importance of collective bargaining and unions to families and communities, let’s be clear that working people, who have aspired to the middle class and tried to make a better life for their families, have taken it on the chin for years," AFT president Randi Weingarten said in a statement. "The Roberts court has consistently ruled in favor of corporate interests, while diminishing the rights of labor. This court has built a record of weakening the rights of both voters and working families; no one should be surprised by this decision."

The Harris decision is more than just another instance of union setbacks, though. It's also yet another win for conservatives who have been trying to use the First Amendment to push their causes.

From campaign finance law (Citizens United) to the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate (Hobby Lobby), the First Amendment has become the GOP's ironclad defense against government regulations. The Harris v. Quinn ruling just added another plate to the GOP's armor.

This post will be updated.

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