Ahead of the the first announced decision, public employee unions were trembling in anticipation of a possible death knell.
The conservative majority on the Supreme Court on Monday signaled its distaste for state laws requiring public-sector workers to pay union dues — but stopped short of sweeping them away, handing organized labor a partial victory in a contentious case.This is especially relevant in my home state of Minnesota. A little more than a year ago, the Democrat majority in the MN Legislature voted to levy union dues on home health care workers and in-home day care providers who accept financial assistance from the state (Gov. Mark Dayton then signed it into law). The rationale handed down was that since these independent workers accepted aid from the state (Medicaid for home health care workers; funds from the Child Care Assistance Program for daycare providers) they were considered "state employees." That seems to be a pretty broad (not to mention overreaching) definition.
By a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled in Harris v. Quinn that home health care workers in Illinois cannot be compelled to financially support a union they don’t wish to join. Illinois is one of 26 states that require public-sector workers — such as firefighters, police officers and teachers — to pay partial dues, often known as “agency fees,” to the unions that negotiate their contracts and represent them in grievances, even if the employees find the union’s advocacy work distasteful.
Union leaders had feared that the justices might strike down those state laws as unconstitutional. The justices did not go that far. They issued a more narrow ruling that the home health care workers at issue in the case are not “full-fledged public employees” because they are hired and fired by individual patients and work in private homes, though they are paid in part by the state, via Medicaid.
Because they’re not truly state employees, the justices decided these workers did not have to pay union dues.
John Eastman, the founding director of the Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, which participated as an amicus curiae in this case, made the distinction between private-sector unions and public-sector unions.
Nearly forty years ago, the Supreme Court took a rule from the private-sector union context and, after a fairly cursory analysis, extended it to the public-sector union context. Since private sector employees could be compelled to contribute to the costs of collective bargaining by a union, so too with public sector employees. “Public employees are not basically different from private employees,” held the Court in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.You know what else is in serious trouble? The Democrats' ability to rely upon massive donations for PEUs, given that well is beginning to dry up.
But public employees are different, and that difference is increasingly being recognized in majority opinions by the high Court, two years ago in Knox v. SEIU, and today in Harris v. Quinn, both authored by Justice Alito. As we argued in the brief we filed in Harris (and also back in Knox), collective bargaining in the public sector is inherently political. When a public employee union bargains for higher wages and other benefits, it is arguing for a public policy that devotes more resources to programs staffed by its members than other programs. Even a public employee union that represents every employee in every program in state government pushes a policy agenda when collective bargaining for more salary and benefits, in favor of larger rather than smaller government, higher rather than lower taxes. Abood held that a union cannot force nonmembers to support its political and ideological expenditures that are unrelated to collective bargaining, but that distinction is really nonsensical in the public employee union context. The unions in Knox had even argued that because all public policy affects public employee union members, the overt political activity of the unions – including campaign support for ballot measures – was simply “lobbying … the electorate.” As such, it was related to collective bargaining and could therefore be assessed against non-union employees via compulsory union dues. The Court rejected that argument in Knox, with a strong opinion by Justice Alito that went so far as to question whether the existing compulsory dues system violated the First Amendment. “By authorizing a union to collect fees from nonmembers and permitting the use of an opt-out system for the collection of fees levied to cover nonchargeable expenses, our prior decisions approach, if they do not cross, the limit of what the First Amendment can tolerate,” noted the Court. That line drew a strident dissent by four Justices in two separate opinions (including by the two Justices who otherwise agreed with the judgment in the case), but it was clear to Court observers across the ideological spectrum that the pro-public-union Abood regime was in serious trouble.