The Supreme Court Ruled Against Unions, But It Could Have Been Worse

While the court ruled against labor unions in Harris v. Quinn Monday, the decision wasn't the major blow to union membership many were expecting.

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While the Court ruled against labor unions in Harris v. Quinn Monday, the decision wasn't the major blow to union membership many were expecting. Illinois' Service Employees International Union (SEIU) cannot force personal assistants to pay "fair share" fees to unions they don't want to join, but the court didn't rule on the large question of whether unions can force people to pay fees.

The Court ruled 5-4 that unions cannot require personal assistants who provide in-home care to pay union fees, because they are not state employees. A later Court could decide unions can't force people to pay fees, but unions as we know them avoided certain death today. "The unions have lost a tool to expand their reach. But they have dodged a major challenge to their very existence," as Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSblog wrote.

In 2003, over 20,000 in-home personal assistants petitioned to become state employees for the sake of unionizing to increase wages. Despite this, conservative, anti-union advocacy group National Right to Work Foundation sued the state on behalf of mothers who didn't want to pay union fees to take care of their children, as The Chicago Tribune explains. In the majority opinion written by conservative Justice Alito, the court argued that while personal assistants are paid by the state's Medicaid program, they are hired by and responsible to their customer. In that sense, they are not public employees and not subject to past rulings that allowed public employees to be charged access fees.

Several states have laws that allow unions to charge "fair share" or access fees to potential members who don't want to join the union but still benefit from collective bargaining efforts. In Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed the court ruled that state employees who don't want to join a union may still be forced to pay a fee that supports collective bargaining efforts. The argument against those "fair share" fees is that some people are being forced to pay to support causes they don't agree with or want to be a part of, and that violates the First Amendment. 

Instead of address the larger First Amendment issues, the court decided that the medical personal assistants suing the unions weren't public employees. In fact, as Alito wrote, the state "withholds from personal assistants most of the rights and benefits enjoyed by full­ fledged state employees," including retirement benefits, or paid vacation, holiday or sick leave. 

This case is unique in the sense that the personal assistants were paying for collective bargaining and representation benefits they couldn't receive. "Suppose, for example that a customer fires a personal assistant because the customer wrongly believes that the assistant stole a fork. Or sup­pose that a personal assistant is discharged because the assistant shows no interest in the customer’s favorite daytime soaps. Can the union file a grievance on behalf of the assistant?" Alito wrote. "The answer is no."

The court ruled that Abood, the case unions based their defense on, only applies to full fledged state employees. “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,” Alito wrote.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.