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.
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.