Supremes Strike Blow Against Public-Sector Unions

by Patrick Brennan

Any day when the Supreme Court didn’t rule on a culture-war issue, this would have been a fairly big deal: The Supreme Court announced a 5–4 decision today in the case Harris v. Quinn that will prevent public-sector unions enforcing mandatory collection of dues from individuals who are partial public employees on free-speech grounds, because the dues can be used for political activity.

What’s a “partial public employee”? Well, in Illinois, it includes Pamela Harris, a woman who receives Medicaid payments to help her take care of her developmentally disabled son at home instead of placing him in an institution.

The Seventh Circuit federal court upheld the state’s rule requiring that people like Harris, who receive their payments under a contract negotiated by the Service Employees International Union, pay dues, on the grounds that the Supreme Court held in a 1977 case, Abood v. City of Detroit, allowed such strictures to be placed on public-sector employees, even though it could amount to coerced speech. But the Supreme Court’s opinion today, authored by Justice Alito, ruled that the reasoning underlying Abood was somewhat questionable, and that in any case, Harris was not a state employee in the proper sense, so that the power to coerce state employees into paying union does shouldn’t extend to people like her.

“Because of Abood’s questionable foundations,” Alito writes, “and because Illinois’ [home care aides] are quite different than full-fledged employees, this court refuses to extend Abood to the situation here.” (In his opinion, he is joined by Justices Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas.)

The dues that unions such as SEIU will lose in Illinois because they can’t draft home-care providers anymore are not insubstantial, and lots of other states have programs like Illinois’s that could be affected by this ruling.

However, this isn’t as dramatic a ruling as some may have wanted, and it isn’t nearly as disastrous for public-sector unions as it could have been. Most public-sector employees at the state and local level will remain unaffected by the decision. The Court could have struck down the power to make public-sector-union dues mandatory, or even done so for private-sector dues too, essentially making every state a “right to work” state, but it didn’t do so.

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