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Labor unions are at risk of having one of their most successful organizing tactics nullified by the Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, the high court will hear oral arguments in Harris V. Quinn, a case that could upend agreements with state governments that allow taxpayer-funded home care workers to unionize.
Those deals have helped boost public sector unions in several states at a time when overall union membership is declining.
Business and conservative-leaning groups are pushing the Supreme Court to overturn the deals, arguing they violate the Constitution by requiring workers to punch a union card.
Labor unions see the legal challenge as another attempt to weaken their influence and warn the disabled and elderly could pay a heavy price.
“This is what they are trying to do: weaken the union,” said Flora Johnson, executive chairwoman of SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana. “Unions will survive, but the people with disabilities and other medical disorders, they might never recover. That is why we are fighting.”
The case hinges on a Supreme Court precedent that says government employees who work at union workplaces must pay fees for collective bargaining representation but not for the union’s political activity.
If the justices rule that home care workers in Illinois are independent contractors rather than state employees, that could allow workers to opt of union representation and cut back on unions' sway.
Such a decision could call into question similar agreements in more than a dozen states, according to experts.
“This has the potential to be a very big case,” said Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute.
“If [the deals are] stopped, that's big in terms of the growth and power of public sector unions,” he said.
Public sector unions have become the driving force behind the labor movement in recent years. In 2012, 7.3 million public sector workers were union members, eclipsing the 7 million union members in the private sector.
The lead plaintiff in the case is Pam Harris, who brought the lawsuit along with seven other Illinois home care providers and help from the National Right to Work Foundation. Harris works as a home care worker for her son, who needs around-the-clock care, and says paying union dues leaves her with less money to cover his medical expenses.
“She's a mom. She's not a government employee, and she should not be forced to join the union,” said Paul Kersey, director of labor policy at the Illinois Policy Institute. “We think the unions overreached here. It was a gross overreach of them to unionize family relationships.”
Other critics said workers shouldn’t be forced to pay union dues.
“It's a violation of the First Amendment, your right to freedom of association. These people all don't want to be in a union, and just because they participate in a public program doesn't mean that they have to be,” said Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Small Business Legal Center.
Cato and NFIB joined forces to file an amicus brief in the case.
Paul Smith, a partner with Jenner & Block, which is representing the SEIU in the case, argued workers are not being forced to support a union’s political activities.
“The fees that nonmembers are paying are not going to any political expression, and the court has said that the First Amendment injury from requiring them to pay fees for collective bargaining is less,” Smith said.
Union supporters say that quality of home care will decline if the high court strikes down the agreements. Home care workers won’t be able to bargain for better wages and benefits, leaving patients without needed assistance as workers leave the profession, they argue.
“Allowing workers to organize to improve their wages and benefits is an important tool to building a home care system that can better respond to the needs of an aging demographic and those currently living with disabilities,” said Henry Claypool, executive vice president for the American Association of People with Disabilities.
Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice, said “restricting the voice of these workers could really set us back in terms of standards that have already been achieved. When I say standards, I mean everything, from wages, benefits, to access to training.”
Regarding the case, Gupta said union rights supporters like her “are all worried because it's hit or miss with this court on whether they really respect and honor workers' ability to have a voice on the job.”
SEIU members and other labor allies are expected to gather outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday in support of the union agreements. Johnson, who is also a home care worker, plans to travel from Chicago to be in Washington that day.
“They don't want a union. We want a union. The union helps us with health insurance, our raises and most of all, the people that we are taking care of are getting quality care,” Johnson said.