time when their clout is decreasing. It’s a narrow ruling, but unions
will have to scramble to cope.
blurry boundary line between the public and private sector.
The ruling says that home health-care aides in Illinois, although they
receive their paychecks from the state through Medicaid, are not
full-fledged state employees and therefore cannot be required to pay
The court’s decision could affect 500,000 U.S. workers in 10 states
and hurt the labor unions that seek to bargain on their behalf. It’s a
setback for organized labor at a time when unions are struggling to
gain new momentum.
But unions might have dodged a worse potential outcome. The court’s conservative justices, who were the majority in the 5-to-4 decision, stopped short of overturning mandatory union dues for government workers across the board, though they referred to the 1977 ruling that enshrined the “union shop” concept in the public sector as having “questionable” foundations.
The “union shop” concept is based on the idea that, since government
employees are covered by collective bargaining, they must help cover
the costs of that bargaining whether they choose to join the union or
Monday’s decision means that workers in the gray area of home health
aides are no longer subject to paying that kind of fee. Labor-union
allies say the ruling undercuts bargaining efforts that have won
substantial wage and benefit gains in a very low-wage industry.
“Most home health care workers had no health insurance themselves” and
earned around the minimum wage before they got union representation,
says Ross Eisenbrey, a labor law expert at the Economic Policy
Institute in Washington.
The case pitted Pamela Harris, a home care worker who argued that the
union fees violated her constitutional free-speech rights, against
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and the union SEIU Healthcare Illinois
(part of the Service Employees International Union).
The ruling doesn’t spell the end of collective bargaining for home
health workers. But it could impose a steep cost on the SEIU, which
represents not only the 26,000 home care workers in Illinois but also
about 400,000 such workers nationwide. The ruling promises to disrupt
the flow of some dues from non-members and could prompt an erosion of
Keith Kelleher, president SEIU Healthcare Illinois, tells the
Associated Press that the union will reach out to home health care
workers in the private sector to help make up the lost revenue.
Unions like the one in Illinois will now have the challenge of how to
deal with “free riders,” workers who don’t pay dues but benefit from
wage and benefit victories scored by union bargaining.
“That’s a difficult task, but not an impossible one,” writes Benjamin
Sachs, a Harvard Law School professor who follows labor issues, in an
online commentary. Unions “have an excellent track record adjusting to
difficult Court decisions.”
The decision comes at a time when organized labor has been generally
declining as a force in the U.S. economy, but also as the public has
shown growing concern about inequality. About 11 percent of U.S. wage
and salary workers were union members in 2013, down from 20 percent in
1983, according to Labor Department numbers.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said legal attacks on unions “are a
direct cause of an economy in which middle class families can’t get a
break because their wages have stagnated and their incomes have
On the conservative side, a blog post by the libertarian Cato
Institute said that “while the Court did not go all the way to
striking down compulsory support of public-sector unions — as union
supporters feared it would — it does deal a major blow to organized
labor where it hurts the most: members and money.”