Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court debated whether public employees can constitutionally be forced to pay fees to a union, weighing a politically tinged case with the potential to undercut the power of organized labor.
Hearing arguments today in Washington, several justices voiced skepticism about Illinois rules requiring union dues from people who provide in-home care for disabled Medicaid recipients. More than 20,000 home-care workers pay such fees in Illinois, totaling $3.6 million each year, according to lawyers for workers who filed the case.
Other justices suggested they didn’t see any infringement of the First Amendment rights of workers who object. Justice Elena Kagan said the arguments made by those workers would “radically restructure the way workplaces across this country are run.”
The justices are considering whether to overturn a 1977 decision that said public employees could be compelled to pay for union representation as long as they don’t have to cover the cost of political or ideological activities. The purpose is to finance the expense of union negotiations over pay and working conditions.
The dispute pits labor unions and the Obama administration against right-to-work advocates. About half the U.S. states let workers be forced to pay union dues even if they don’t belong.
The court separately heard arguments today in a clash over the rights to the 1980 Oscar-winning movie “Raging Bull.” The daughter of a man who worked with boxer Jake LaMotta on the screenplay is seeking to press copyright claims against units of MGM Holding Inc. and Twenty-First Century Fox Inc.
The rights of public workers have been a hot political and legal topic in recent years, highlighted by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s successful 2011 effort to curb collective-bargaining rights there.
That political reality seeped into the high court debate today. Justice Samuel Alito said the Illinois rules at the center of the fight were enacted after the Service Employees International Union made a “huge campaign contribution” to former Governor Rod Blagojevich.
“Virtually as soon as he got into office he took out his pen and signed an executive order that had the effect of putting -- what was it -- $3.6 million into the union coffers?” Alito said.
The Illinois fight stems from a series of laws and executive orders backed by Blagojevich and current Governor Pat Quinn, both Democrats. The rules are being challenged by eight caregivers, seven of whom provide in-home services to their own family members.
Justice Antonin Scalia emerged as a central figure in the case today, hinting through his questions that he might agree with the court’s Democratic appointees and back the Illinois rules. He said mandatory fees prevented someone from becoming a “free rider” -- benefiting from union representation without paying part of the cost.
“You’re essentially destroying not just the closed shop, but you’re destroying the ability of the union to get money even from the people” who agree with its actions, Scalia told the lawyer for the objecting workers, William Messenger of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
Those comments were in contrast to a 2012 opinion written by Alito and joined by Scalia. That opinion called agency fees a “significant impingement on First Amendment rights” and questioned whether preventing free riders was an adequate justification.
Messenger told the justices that “the purpose of this mandatory association is inherently expressive.”
He found an ally in Justice Anthony Kennedy, who asked about a hypothetical union that fights for larger pension benefits against the wishes of a young worker who would prefer a higher salary.
“Suppose the young person thinks that the state is squandering his heritage on unnecessary and excessive payments or benefits and wages,” Kennedy said. “Is that not a political belief of the highest order?”
Paul Smith, the lawyer defending the Illinois rules, told the justices that unions have a “duty of fair representation” that requires them to take divergent views into account.
In court papers, the state says its 2003 collective bargaining agreement increased the pay of home-care workers from $7 to $13 an hour.
U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli told the justices that the First Amendment rights of public employees are limited when they are dealing with issues connected to their employment.
“The context we are dealing with here is the government as proprietor and manager of its own operations,” Verrilli said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pressed Messenger to say whether his challenge was limited to mandatory dues or whether he was also arguing that a union can’t be designated as the exclusive representative for a group of public workers. Messenger said that, for now, his group was challenging only the fees.
The case is Harris v. Quinn, 11-681.
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