WASHINGTON — Public employee unions suffered a bloody nose at the hands of the Supreme Court on Monday when it ruled that certain government employees don’t have to pay union dues even when their interests are being represented.
But it could have been worse.
In a case known as Harris v. Quinn that involves home health care workers in Illinois hired by individuals and paid in part by the government through Medicaid, the court’s majority in the 5-4 decision said a “partial” public employee didn’t have the same union obligations as a “full-fledged” public employee.
It was a distinction that drew on the court’s 1977 ruling in an earlier case that said even if government employees objected to a union’s views, they could be forced to pay dues to finance the union’s contracting costs. Labor groups had feared that the court might use the current case to overturn that precedent.
That would have had far-reaching affects. Illinois is among 26 states that require their public-sector employees to fund union collective bargaining. Nonmembers, however, don’t have to pay for the union’s political advocacy.
Twenty-four states, including Georgia and Idaho, have passed so-called right-to-work laws that have dismantled the authority of public-sector unions.
Lawyers for the plaintiff in Harris v. Quinn argued that the two notions _ collective bargaining and political advocacy _ were interchangeable and that requiring the dues payment was a violation of the First Amendment.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said a union’s role as a “bargaining agent” and its right to require nonmembers to pay a fee were two characteristics that were “not inextricably linked.” He stressed that an individual who disagrees with the union _ and what it bargains for _ should have the right not to pay its dues.
Alito also said that if the court agreed with Illinois that the ruling in the 1977 case _ Abood v. Detroit Board of Education _ meant that the home health care workers in the current case must pay fees to the union, “we would approve an unprecedented violation of the bedrock principle that, except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”
Though not unionized, the plaintiff in the case, home health care worker Pamela Harris, was required to pay a fee to Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois-Indiana because of a contract between the state and the union. Her attorneys, from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, argued that the requirement violated her First Amendment rights.
Alito said applying Abood in the case before the court would have been tantamount to a “significant expansion” of the 1977 decision because Abood “has clear boundaries; it applies to public employees. Extending those boundaries to encompass partial-public employees, quasi-public employees or simply private employees would invite problems.”
Justice Elena Kagan applauded the majority’s decision not to overturn the 1977 ruling. But in her dissent, she criticized Alito’s distinction between home health care workers and public employees. Because Illinois sets employment standards such as wages and insurance, Kagan argued, the distinction between “partial” and “full-fledged” public employees was negligible.
“It is not altogether easy to understand why the majority thinks what it thinks,” Kagan wrote. “Today’s opinion takes the tack of throwing everything against the wall in the hope that something might stick.”
Monday was the court’s last day of this session. It will take up a new set of cases in October.
(Correction: in an earlier version, the reporter’s name was misspelled.)