The War on Women found an ally at the Supreme Court last week with two rulings that threaten to deepen gender inequality in the workplace. The Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case is more clearly aimed at women, with its religiously inspired assault on women’s contraceptive healthcare access. But it was the ruling on union rights in Harris v. Quinn, which threatens a vital union for public healthcare workers, that may prove even more consequential for the lives of working women.
Washington has for years been paralyzed by the right’s anti-abortion agenda and resistant to funding the most basic welfare supports for low-income mothers. Now the Court has expanded the attack on women through legal clampdowns on women’s economic and civil rights—attacking reproductive healthcare in one ruling and gutting women’s labor power in the other.
Harris centered on Illinois home healthcare workers’ ability to collect dues from all workers they represent. Though the issues of “fair share” rules at unionized workplaces related to all public sector unions, Harris hit at the Achilles heel of public labor: the unique situation of home care workers for people with disabilities, working in private homes, but paid by the government. For this hybrid sector, the Court arbitrarily carved out of standard labor law a novel, and sexist, category, termed “partial public employees.” Siding with the national Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the decision effectively stripped unions working in the partial public sector of their ability to finance themselves by invalidating “fair share agreements,” the practice that allows unions to collect dues from employees of an organized shop.
The target of the suit matters here. In home healthcare and other sectors of domestic work, the jobs have long been dismissed as “women’s work,” disproportionately done by poor women of color and immigrants. Besieged by the arduous schedules, psychological stress and physical strain of caretaking, homecare providers have the most to gain from unionization. They’re also some of the hardest workers to unionize, because the aides serve thousands of people with disabilities and their families, all in diverse households with unique medical needs.
Some labor scholars noted that fair share is not yet completely abolished for all public workers, since the Court did not overturn the key precedent allowing public closed-shop unions, Abood v. Board of Education. And yes, the narrower decision in Harris may for now spare more conventional public sector unions, like direct employees of state agencies. Some actually see Harris as a potential springboard for intensified grassroots organizing strategies to “market” union membership to the rank-and-file.