A largely overlooked Supreme Court case has the potential to fundamentally alter the right of public employees to unionize—and a ruling could be handed down as early as this week.
That case, Harris v. Quinn, comes from the great state of Illinois, which recognizes a union for its home health care workers. One of those workers, Pamela Harris, is the lead plaintiff.
At issue are two critical questions. First, can the state actually recognize a union of such workers? And second, do these workers have a First Amendment right to refuse to pay their “fair share” of the cost for union representation?
Illinois began recognizing a union for its home health care aides 10 years ago, largely in an effort to reduce turnover and provide stability for an increasingly elderly and disabled population. While individuals are empowered to choose their own aides and organize their daily activity, the state sets the number of hours aides can work and the required qualifications for such a position, in addition to paying their wages.
Moreover, no one is required to be an official member of the union, but they are required to support the costs of collective bargaining on their behalf. The rule harkens back to Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1976), in which the Court held that public employees “may be compelled to support legitimate, non-ideological, union activities germane to collective-bargaining representation.”
In doing so, the Court recognized a state interest in simplifying the management of its employees, as well as a labor interest in avoiding “free rider” situations in which non-union colleagues benefit from the union’s advocacy without paying for it.
But the Court also recognized First Amendment interests in free association and free speech. By permitting public employees to remain non-members of the union, and by restricting the use of their contributions to the costs of representation and not to political activities, the Court struck a balance between these concerns and those of the workplace.
Harris, who cares for her son at home, rejects this precedent, telling NPR, “I object to my home being a union workplace.” She believes that the state cannot be considered her employer and that she is being forced to associate with an organization with whose speech she does not agree.
At oral arguments on January 21, several justices appeared sympathetic to the arguments forwarded by Ms. Harris’ attorney, William Messenger of the National Right to Work Legal Foundation, according to SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston, who also contributes to Constitution Daily.
Several justices appeared alarmed by such arguments and more sympathetic to Paul Smith of Jenner & Block, who represented the union, and U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr., who weighed in on behalf of the federal government.
A decision will be announced by the end of June.
Nicandro Iannacci is a web strategist at the National Constitution Center.
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