Supreme Court public union ruling could lead to more challenges

National Constitution Center

A Supreme Court decision on Monday about the future of public unions will restrict some organized labor power, and could open up more challenges about the existence of public workers’ unions.

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The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court

In a 5-4 decision, the Court said home health care aides in Illinois didn’t have to pay union representation costs for a public workers’ union they didn’t belong to. But the Court also said the workers weren’t “full-fledged public employees,” upholding in principle a 1970s Court decision that underpins the public union sector.

In 1977, the Court said in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that states could make workers contribute to public unions. But in Monday’s case, Harris v. Quinn, the Court said home-care workers who receive payments from the Illinois Medicaid program aren’t considered “employees” of the state and didn’t have to pay dues.

Link: Read the ruling

In his majority decision, Justice Samuel Alito was highly critical of the Abood precedent, but in the end, the Court’s conservative bloc decided to rule narrowly on the issue of the Illinois workers and leave bigger issues about public sector unions for another day.

“The Abood court failed to appreciate … the conceptual difficulty in public-sector cases of distinguishing union expenditures for collective bargaining from those designed for political purposes,” Alito said, leaving some experts to observe that more legal challenges will be on the way.

In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said that Abood’s survival was “cause for satisfaction, though hardly applause.” Kagan was critical of Alito’s decision, saying that “much has gone wrong in today’s ruling, but this has not: Save for an unfortunate hiving off of ostensibly ‘partial-public’ employees, Abood remains the law.”

Illinois began recognizing a union for its home health care aides 10 years ago, largely in an effort to reduce turnover and provide stability for an increasingly elderly and disabled population. While individuals are empowered to choose their own aides and organize their daily activity, the state set the number of hours aides can work and the required qualifications for such a position, in addition to paying their wages.

Moreover, no one was required to be an official member of the union, but they were required to support the costs of collective bargaining on their behalf. In Abood, Court held that public employees “may be compelled to support legitimate, non-ideological, union activities germane to collective-bargaining representation.”

In doing so, the Court recognized a state interest in simplifying the management of its employees, as well as a labor interest in avoiding “free rider” situations in which non-union colleagues benefit from the union’s advocacy without paying for it.

But the Abood Court also recognized First Amendment interests in free association and free speech. By permitting public employees to remain non-members of the union, and by restricting the use of their contributions to the costs of representation and not to political activities, the Court tried to strike a balance between these concerns and those of the workplace.

It was Alito’s sharp wording in the Harris decision that signaled to some that more challenges to Abood might be on their way to the Court.

“The Abood Court’s analysis is questionable on several grounds. Some of these were noted or apparent at or before the time of the decision, but several have become more evident and troubling in the years since then,” said Alito.

“A critical pillar of the Abood Court’s analysis rests on an unsupported empirical assumption, namely, that the principle of exclusive representation in the public sector is dependent on a union or agency shop,” he added.

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