June 30 (Bloomberg) -- A divided U.S. Supreme Court handed a setback to organized labor by placing new limits on the ability of unions to demand fees from some public-sector workers.
The high court, voting 5-4, invalidated Illinois rules requiring union payments from people who provide in-home care for disabled Medicaid recipients. The majority said those rules violated the workers’ constitutional right to freedom of speech and association because the home health-care workers weren’t true public employees.
“If we accepted Illinois’ argument,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in today’s majority opinion, “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.”
Left standing by the majority was a 1977 high court ruling that public-sector 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.
Alito called that 37-year-old decision “questionable,” while stopping short of overturning it. He said the Service Employees International Union was asking the court to expand the precedent so it applied not just to “full-fledged public workers” but also to others deemed government employees for the sole purpose of unionization and the payment of dues.
Joining Alito’s opinion were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy.
The high court’s ruling will directly affect about 12 states with similar rules and could have ramifications in the 26 states without “right to work” laws that let workers opt out of union dues. The dispute pitted labor unions and President Barack Obama’s administration against right-to-work advocates.
The administration said in a statement that while the White House was disappointed by today’s decision, it remained committed to defending collective-bargaining rights.
The Illinois law resulted in fairer compensation and better job protection, according to the administration. The ruling will make it more difficult for home health-care workers to get “a fair shake in exchange for their hard work,” while making it harder for elderly and disabled Americans to get care, it said.
The Illinois measure had been upheld by two lower courts.
Public worker union rights 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.
Justice Elena Kagan, in her dissent, said the court majority was wrong to bar Illinois from using a “tool that many have thought necessary to make collective bargaining work.”
The majority offered no basis for its conclusion that home health-care workers, paid with government money, aren’t true public employees, Kagan wrote. She was joined by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
Kagan said the majority didn’t justify what she called its failure to abide by the 1977 ruling, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.
“Today’s opinion takes the tack of throwing everything against the wall in the hope that something might stick,” she said.
The Illinois fight stemmed from a series of laws and executive orders backed by Democratic governors Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn, who took office in 2009.
The rules cover workers in two separate programs. One, known as the Rehabilitation Program, covers in-home care for people with medical impairments. In 2003, Illinois designated the Service Employees International Union to represent workers under that program after concluding that a majority supported SEIU. The state has since reached three collective-bargaining agreements with the union.
The other program, known as the Disabilities Program, covers services for people with mental impairments. Although Quinn called for the designation of an exclusive bargaining agent for those workers in 2009, they later voted against union representation and aren’t covered by a collective-bargaining agreement.
Quinn today termed the high court ruling “disappointing.”
“There are thousands of workers who care for our seniors and people with disabilities in Illinois, and they deserve the right to collectively bargain for decent wages, benefits and proper working conditions,” he said in a statement.
State Attorney General Lisa Madigan said the decision was “narrow” and that it “does not change” the Illinois program. “The court ruled that home health-care workers who choose not to join the union will no longer have to pay fair share fees,” she said in a statement. “But the decision allows the union to continue to be the exclusive representative of these home health-care workers.”
The rules were challenged by eight caregivers, seven of whom provide in-home services to family members. They said the rules violated their First Amendment rights by requiring them to accept representation on issues of public concern, specifically the state’s policies on distributing Medicaid benefits.
Illinois and union officials say the arrangements have benefited caregivers, increasing wages for Rehabilitation Program workers from $7 an hour in 2003 to $13 an hour by the end of this year. They argued that collective bargaining through a single representative furthers peaceful and productive labor relations.
More than 7 million government workers were union members last year, according to the National Right to Work Foundation, whose legal arm represented the Illinois challengers before the Supreme Court. About as many people now belong to unions in the public sector as in the private sector.
The overturned state mandate designated home health-care providers as public workers only for the purpose of unionization, the right-to-work group said today in a statement. For all other purposes, the person receiving the care served as the worker’s employer.
“This scheme, which forced parents and other relatives taking care of persons with disabilities into union political association, was a slap in the face of fundamental principles we hold dear,” said Mark Mix, president of the right-to-work group.
The high court decision freed these care providers from “unwanted union control,” Mix said.
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said today’s decision put at risk a consumer-directed health-care system that had led to higher wages for care providers and increased training.
“The number of elderly Americans will increase dramatically in the coming years,” Henry said. “States need to build a stable, qualified workforce to meet the growing need for home care -- and having a strong union for home care workers is the only approach that has proven effective.”
The case is Harris v. Quinn, 11-681.