The Supreme Court is expected to decide Monday whether government workers can be forced to pay dues to a union.
Experts say the decision could cripple the ability of public sector unions to function. Unions are obligated to bargain over benefits and wages on behalf of all workers, even those who don’t belong to the union. If workers cannot be forced to pay dues, many won’t and as a result union coffers would dry, they say.
The question stems from Harris v. Quinn, an Illinois case involving in-home care providers. Illinois and other states have long used Medicaid funds to pay salaries for in-home care workers to assist disabled adults who otherwise might have to be placed in state institutions. The jobs were poorly paid, and turnover was high.
During the past decade, more than 20,000 of these workers in Illinois voted to organize and won wage increases by joining the Service Employees International Union. They were able to do so thanks to executive orders signed by Govs. Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn that designated them as “public employees.”
In 2010, the National Right to Work Foundation, an anti-union advocacy group, sued Quinn and the union, accusing the state and union of conspiring to relabel private care providers so the union could collect union fees.
Their main challenge is whether workers who don't want to participate in the union should be forced to pay dues, a longtime union practice known as "fair-share" fees.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of several mothers who take care of their disabled adult children at home and resent the idea of paying about $50 a month in union dues.
A federal judge in Chicago and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the suit, citing Supreme Court precedents dating to 1977 that allow unions representing teachers and other public employees to collect fees to fund activities related to collective bargaining from all workers, including those who object to the union. Employees, however, cannot be forced to fund political or ideological activities.
The Supreme Court may be ready to reconsider those precedents, and some predict justices will use the Chicago case to do so.
Two years ago, Justice Samuel Alito wrote an opinion that rebuked the service employees union in a California case and said the union had wrongly collected special dues from all employees to pay for political ads.
The union said it intended to give refunds to nonmembers.
But Alito's opinion went beyond the dispute over political funds and cast doubt on whether unions should continue to be able to force public employees to pay union fees even if they don't want to.
The First Amendment generally protects Americans from being forced by the government to join groups or pay for causes they oppose, he said.
"Compulsory fees constitute a form of compelled speech and association that imposes a significant impingement on First Amendment rights," he wrote, joined by four fellow conservatives. "Our cases have tolerated" these forced fees for public employees in the past, and "we do not revisit (them) today."
Conservative advocates saw Alito's opinion as an invitation to mount a broader challenge to public-sector unions on First Amendment grounds.
The Illinois case grew in importance in the wake of Alito's opinion.
At first, the right-to-work lawyers had argued that Blagojevich and Quinn were wrong when they treated the in-home care workers as state employees.
While they are paid through state funds, they are hired by private citizens and work in private homes, the challengers said.
Once the case of Harris v. Quinn reached the Supreme Court, the anti-union attorneys raised the stakes and urged the justices to overturn their 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which upheld forced fees for all public employees who are represented by a union.
Lawyers said about a dozen states have authorized in-home care providers to join unions and bargain as state employees. Republican governors in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin repealed those orders, they said.
Harvard Law professor Benjamin Sachs, a labor law expert, said it would be "pretty radical" for the high court to strike down "fair-share" fees that public-sector unions have come to rely upon.
Just as lawyers are required to pay state bar fees, it is reasonable, he said, for employees who benefit from collective bargaining to pay a fee.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun