Supreme Court’s Conservatives Attack Public-Sector Unions’ Power, Cutting Dues-Paying Requirement

The Court's conservatives deliver for the anti-union business community.

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The U.S. Supreme Court vastly undercut the power of public-sector unions Monday, with the right-wing majority limiting which government employees must pay union dues—cutting into their operating funds for lobbying and other political activities.

The case, Harris v. Quinn, concerned the constitutionality of “agency fees,” which are charged by these unions to all workers in a unionized setting, even non-union members.

“This case presents the question whether the First Amendment permits a State to compel personal care providers to subsidize speech on matters of public concern by a union that they do not wish to join or support. We hold that it does not,” Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Court’s five-member conservative majority, held. “If we accepted Illinois’ argu­ment, 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.”

Justice Elena Kagan, writing the dissent, called the majority opinion blatantly political, because the Court had previously upheld the union dues requirement when the funds were used for employment contracts—not lobbying or political advocacy. “The Court upheld the requirement so long as the union was using the money for 'collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment,' rather than for political or ideological activities.”

For years, Republicans in many states have tried to undermine the financing of unions’ ability to lobby and electioneer by seeking other avenues to undercut union dues. States like California have seen numerous so-called paycheck protection measures, sponsored by the business sector, appear as ballot initiatives, almost always voted down by the state’s electorate. The ruling in Harris v. Quinn may achieve what these ballot measures failed to do—shrink union dues because there’s always a portion of workers who don’t want to pay these fees, even if reaping the benefits of union advocacy.  

The case began with home health care workers in Illinois paid under the state’s Medicaid program, which covers health care for the poor. In 2003, then Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich issued an executive order allowing the Service Employees International Union to exclusively represent the state’s home health care workers. In 2009, his successor, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn issued another executive order classifying home care providers as state workers, making them eligible for union representation. A year later, a group of home health care workers, led by Pamela Harris, brought a class-action lawsuit claiming that the SEIU’s collective bargaining agreement that required non-union members to pay union fees violated their First Amendment rights.

SEIU has 2.1 million members nationally, the majority of whom are women. The union typically represents workers in some of America's lowest-wage industries.

Labor officials have long feared the implications of this kind of ruling, because it could make Democrats more reliant on Wall Street money for their political campaigns than on their traditional allies in unions, which contribute both money and volunteer manpower.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections, including Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election, to be published in March 2018 from Hot Books.


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