Get unlimited digital access to $0.99 for 4 weeks.
News Nation/World

Union ruling could significantly affect SEIU Healthcare coffers

Susan Watts said she jumped and screamed Monday morning when she learned that, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she did not have to pay union dues.

"You can dream big and you can make a difference, but you have to have the courage to stand up for what you believe," Watts said.

She acknowledges that her pay has gone up because of her union. But she said she believes the money would be better spent serving more disabled and elderly people.

Her victory means that SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas could lose the dues of 8,000 workers it represents in Illinois who are nonunion members.

Watts is the personal assistant to her 27-year-old daughter, Libby, who has severe cerebral palsy. Libby was born 15 weeks premature and can't use her arms or legs, can't swallow and has difficulty breathing.

Under a state program, Watts is reimbursed at about $12 an hour for a portion of the time she spends caring for Libby.

When she joined the program about eight years ago, she looked at her first paycheck and noticed a deduction for "non-member dues." Watts said she didn't know she was supporting a union and tried to stop the payments, which amount to about $800 per year, depending on the amount of hours she works.

She eventually joined a group of eight mothers who, like her, did not want a union or to be forced to pay dues. In 2010, the group, led by Pamela Harris, sued Gov. Pat Quinn and the union with the help of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an anti-union group. The attorneys argued in Harris v. Quinn that forcing workers to pay dues to a union is a violation of the First Amendment.

The court said that in-home care workers like Watts are not full-fledged public employees because they are answerable only to their clients and not to the state of Illinois. As such, the court determined that they shouldn't be forced to pay union dues.

A previous case held that state employees who chose not to join a union may still be forced to pay union dues related to the collective bargaining process to prevent "free-riding" — sharing the benefits without sharing the costs.

The court's decision Monday means that if in-home care workers desert the Service Employees International Union, the union can't force them to pay dues.

The court's decision is not as far-reaching as unions had feared, but it still has significant implications.

Experts say they expect to see an increase of cases that would question the definition of full-fledged public employees within other unions.

Keith Kelleher, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas, which represents about 26,000 in-home care workers in Illinois, said the decision could weaken the union's ability to represent workers. Those members have been paying annual dues of more than $3.6 million, according to court documents.

The loss of those dues could significantly hurt the union. About 30 percent of the union's in-home health care workers were paying dues as nonmembers. Slightly less than 70 percent of SEIU Healthcare members — or about 18,000 workers — are union members.

Still, Kelleher and other union leaders vowed to find new ways of organizing workers in this sector.

"It's not going to stop us," said Kelleher, who helped build the union starting in the 1980s because it had some of the lowest-paying jobs in the state. Workers received as little as $1 per hour for some tasks to $3.35 per hour, the state's minimum wage at the time.

Kelleher initially failed to persuade the state Illinois Labor Relations Board to recognize the workers as public employees.

In 2003, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed an executive order recognizing the workers as public employees, a move that allowed the state to bargain with the union. Quinn later expanded the definition to workers in other programs.

Today, SEIU Healthcare is one of the largest unions in the Midwest, with more than 93,000 members across four states. Kelleher said the union secured increased wages, fought for health benefits and improved turnover rates. He fears, he said, that the decision Monday would weaken the union's ability to represent workers.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissent, said Illinois is a joint employer of the workers and establishes, after negotiations with the union, the most important terms of their employment, including wages, benefits and basic qualifications.

"Today's opinion takes the tack of throwing everything against the wall in the hope that something might stick," Kagan wrote.

William Gould IV, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, said the court seems to be inviting litigation that would question who is a public sector employee and who is not. The goal of the court, he said, is to reverse a ruling that allows unions to force workers to pay fair-share fees.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation lauded the ruling, and said the court struck down a scheme that is being attempted by unions in at least 18 other states and freed thousands of home care providers from unwanted union control.

Several union members said they did not believe the court's ruling would hurt their cause.

"It was a little disappointing," said Gilda Brown, who has been working as a personal assistant for 11 years. "But it's not going to affect us as union members, because we will continue to fight."

Brown said she made $6.35 an hour when she took the job in 2003, the same year the union won the right to bargain. She said her pay increases to $12.25 an hour Tuesday and will exceed $13 an hour by year's end.

Brown said health care benefits that came with union membership have been life-changing. She used to wake up early to be first or second in line to try to be seen at a hospital; now, she has her own doctor.

She remembers telling a pharmacist to put back a prescription because she couldn't afford the $44 price. Her union card, she said, cut the price to $3.17.

"That was the happiest day for me," she said.

Still, she emphasizes, "It's not only about the money," she said, adding that she also has received training from the union. "My consumer is like part of my family. I like what I do because it feels good that someone needs me."

"No court case is going to stop us," said Dorothy Glenn, an in-home care provider since 1972 who cares for her disabled twin sister. "We've come too far."

Glenn said she was earning only a $1 per hour when she started, which made it difficult to make ends meet. Her husband died that same year.

"Everything changed," she said, once the union began representing her. She also makes $12.25 an hour beginning Tuesday.

Tribune reporter Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz contributed.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content