The Supreme Court reached into the living rooms of homebound people with disabilities today and weakened the institutional backbone of public sector unions. At the intersection of public service and private capital, the case Harris v. Quinn was ostensibly about the cost of union dues, but hinged on a legal theory that could ultimately cost the labor movement far more.
Today’s five-four decision pushed public sector unions a step closer toward death by attrition, by eroding their ability to finance themselves. The ruling specifically blocks unions from collecting mandatory dues from Medicaid-funded personal health aides in Illinois.
Though the decision was not as broad as labor groups had feared, it strikes hard at the concept of “fair share”—the idea that workers in a union shop should be expected to contribute to the running of the union. The Court has previously upheld this concept on the premise that because everyone in the workplace benefits from the collectively bargained contract—including negotiated wages, work rules, safety standards and benefits—financially supporting that representation should be mandatory.
The workers in Harris aren’t typical government bureaucrats; they are homecare assistants with Illiinois’s Medicaid-funded in-homecare program, serving thousands of people with disabilities. After being authorized to vote to unionize with SEIU years ago, this workforce became a relatively recent addition to Illinois’s public sector. In many other states, home health attendants not only lack union coverage; their jobs are precarious, low-paid and disproportionately done by women and people of color.
The plaintiffs represent a group of workers involved in a later vote that ultimately rejected the union. They brought the suit on the principle that fair share, or what conservatives call “forced unionism,” when imposed on workers regardless of whether they personally favor a union, violates their free speech rights. This argument folds into a broader assault on public sector unions led by the group backing the plaintiffs, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTWLDF). The group advocates for “right to work” laws (already in place in twenty-four states) that undermine labor by barring “closed shop” unions that provide blanket union representation. In its sweeping focus on public-sector unionism (specifically targeting SEIU and AFSCME), the Harris plaintiffs aimed to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), which upheld collective bargaining rights and dues collection for public-sector unions.