Court chips away at union power

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The Supreme Court on Monday chipped away at the power of organized labor by ruling that some state workers cannot be forced to pay union fees. [READ SUPREME COURT RULING.]

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In a 5-4 decision, the justices struck down a requirement that home care workers in Illinois contribute to a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), even if they choose not to join.

“A state may not force every person who benefits from this [union's] efforts to make payments to the [union],” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority’s decision.

The ruling in Harris v. Quinn dealt a setback to the labor movement by creating a new class of partial public employees who can be exempted from “free rider” laws designed to ensure that all workers shoulder collective bargaining costs.

The White House sharply criticized the decision, arguing it will make it harder for the Illinois workers to “get a fair shake in exchange for their hard work.”

“We are disappointed that the Supreme Court has carved out a group of workers — home care workers who provide critical support to the elderly and people with disabilities in their own homes,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which helped bring the legal challenge, trumpeted the ruling and said home care workers had "refused to be bullied" by union bosses.

“We applaud these homecare providers’ effort to convince the Supreme Court to strike down this constitutionally-dubious scheme, thus freeing thousands of homecare providers from unwanted union control,” said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation.

Still, the scope of the decision came as a relief to labor leaders, who had feared the justices would decimate their ranks by abolishing compulsory fees.

The public sector has been the rare bright spot for organized labor amid declining membership. In 2012, 7.3 million public sector workers were members of a union, compared to the 7 million union members in the private sector.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), perhaps the most powerful public worker union in the country, said Monday’s ruling “did not hand anti-worker extremists the victory they’d been hoping for.”

“But make no mistake — Justice Alito’s opinion made clear that the relentless assault on workers’ rights will not abate,” AFSCME President Lee Saunders said in a statement.

Alito’s ruling casts broad skepticism on the precedent enshrined in a previous Supreme Court case, Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education, that underpins union agreements across the country.

He wrote that the court “seriously erred” in Abood and other rulings that treat compulsory union dues as constitutional.

“Surely a First Amendment issue of this importance deserved better treatment,” Alito wrote.

In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan accused the majority of taking “potshots” at Abood, but said she was pleased that the court had rejected the “radical request” of creating a “right-to-work regime for all government employees.”

“The Court did not, as the petitioners wanted, deprive every state and local government, in the management of their employees and programs, of the tool that many have thought necessary and appropriate to make collective bargaining work,” Kagan wrote.

“The bad news is just as simple: The majority robbed Illinois of that choice in administering its in-home care program,” she wrote.

The case centered on workers in Illinois who provide at-home medical care, often to ailing or disabled family members. The program is designed to keep people out of nursing homes and assisted living facilities and is paid for with federal Medicaid funds.

The Illinois Legislature allowed the home care workers to organize and join the group SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana. Under the “fair share” agreement, workers who opted not to join the SEIU were required to pay a fee for the collective bargaining services the union provided.

Some of the home care workers challenged the fees in court as a violation of their First Amendment rights.

Alito sided with the challengers and said they could not be required to pay the fees because they lack the “full scope of powers” generally afforded union members. They do not receive a number of benefits given to state workers, such as vacation time and health insurance, and lack other workplace protections, he wrote.

“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? The answer is no,” 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,” Alito wrote.

In her dissent, Kagan wrote that fair-share fees should apply "no less to those caregivers than to other state workers," and noted that the SEIU negotiated with the state for better wages and benefits for the home healthcare workers.

"Abood held that a government entity may, consistent with the First Amendment, require public employees to pay a fair share of the cost that a union incurs negotiating on their behalf for better terms of employment," Kagan wrote. "That is exactly what Illinois did."

Alito’s decision for the majority was backed by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Kagan’s dissent.

This story was first posted at 10:30 a.m. and has been updated.

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