Supreme Court to consider ‘kill shot’ on public sector unions

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The Supreme Court will make its most important ruling in labor law in decades next week when it weighs in on a right-to-work case that could determine whether non-union workers can be compelled to pay public sector union dues.

Courts for years have recognized the rights of unions to ask non-members to pay dues for union negotiating costs, but a group of home healthcare workers in Harris vs. Quinn are challenging dues they pay to a branch of the Service Employees International Union as a violation of free speech.

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The case is pitting business groups and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation against labor giants like the SEIU, which worry the court could rule broadly to prevent all non-members of public sector unions from being compelled to pay dues.

Such a decision from the court, which is expected to rule on Monday, could deliver a “kill shot” to organized labor at a time when it is already struggling with a declining membership.

Still, some labor supporters say they’re anticipating a loss.

“I expect the worst,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the progressive Economic Policy Institute.

The case was brought by Pamela Harris, who receives money from the state of Illinois to take care of her son.

Workers like Harris were once seen as independent contractors, but Illinois’s legislature in 2003 passed a law deeming them public employees. This forced people like Harris to have fees from their Medicare checks withheld as payment to the SEIU, which had the responsibility of representing all workers who were subject to the 2003 law.

Harris and others are arguing this represents a violation of their free speech. They say the state law compelled them to be represented by a union and to pay fees.

“That's a huge injustice to force people to pay dues to a union that they want nothing to do with,” said Patrick Semmens, spokesman for the National Right to Work (NRTW) Legal Defense Fund.

A ruling that just affects the Illinois home workers might have a modest impact on labor law, but a broader ruling that prevents public sector unions from collecting dues from non-members could take millions of dollars out of their coffers.

“We're concerned, but it's certainly not going to stop workers from coming together with their unions and fighting to improve their jobs and the quality of public services,” said Judy Scott, general counsel at SEIU, which is a defendant in the case.

Eisenbrey argues the case is part of an effort by big business to further weaken unions.

“It's part of a corporate campaign to weaken or kill unions wherever they can, however they can,” Eisenbrey said. “It's a complete attack on all of the improvements in labor standards that have been made over the last 50, 60 years.”

Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia could prove to be the swing vote, experts say.

In a 1991 Supreme Court case, Scalia argued it is reasonable for unions to collect fees from non-union members to cover their negotiating costs. Then, during oral arguments for Harris vs. Quinn in January, Scalia's questions led some believe he is leaning in this direction once again.

Eisenbrey called Scalia “the hope.”

“In this case, Scalia may actually end up being a swing vote who actually sides with the more liberal members of the court and, of course, workers,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP).