There were undoubtedly justices on the most anti-labor US Supreme Court in modern judicial history who wanted to strip public-sector unions of their ability to collect dues from workers they represent.
But they were not quite prepared to strike the devastating blow that labor activists feared would be delivered Monday.
Since the High Court’s 2012 decision in Knox v. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000—which complicated the processes by which public-employee unions can engage politically—there has been a general sense that conservative justices were angling for an opening to gut the twenty-six state laws that require workers who benefit from union representation to pay dues. The case of Harris v. Quinn, in which a small number of Illinois homecare workers sought to avoid paying dues to the Service Employees International Union, seemed to create that opening.
But the Court’s conservative majority stopped short of making a ruling that would have allowed public employees to stop paying dues to the unions that negotiate contracts guaranteeing them higher wages and benefits, protect them from employer abuses and advocate in the legislative and political arenas on their behalf. In so doing, they allowed public-sector unions to remain vital forces in the majority of American states.
Make no mistake, however, the Court did so grudgingly.
Writing for the five conservative justices who made up the majority, Justice Samuel Alito let the eight homecare workers involved in the Harris case opt out of paying dues because the Court determined they were not “full-fledged public employees.” The majority (Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Alito, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy) determined that, because the workers are hired by individual patients and work in private homes, they are not actually state employees—even though they are paid via Medicaid, and even though SEIU’s negotiations with the state yielded substantial improvements in the pay and benefits of the represented workers.
That dodge allowed a sharply divided court—where Justice Scalia surprised observers of oral arguments on the case with a line of questioning that seemed somewhat sympathetic to the arguments of the unions—to avoid making a sweeping determination.
It is important to recognize, however, that the Court’s decision is an ominous one for domestic workers and the unions that are speaking to represent them.
And Alito, who has emerged as the steadiest foe of labor rights on the Court, still seems to be looking for an opening to further undermine labor rights.