Striking a blow to efforts to unionize health care workers who are employed privately by the aged, ill or frail in their homes, the U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated an Illinois statute requiring these home-based personal care providers to financially support a union that has a collective bargaining relationship with the State where the care providers do not wish to join or support the union. Harris v. Quinn, No. 12-861 (June 30, 2014). The Court found, 5-4, the state statute’s requirement violated the personal care providers’ rights under the First Amendment. 

The Court, however, spared public-sector unions a much greater setback by leaving intact its decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Educ., 431 U.S. 209 (1977), in which it ruled the First Amendment allows public-sector unions to collect certain compulsory fees from nonmembers. 

Background

A 2003 Illinois law recognized certain home care providers for Medicaid recipients as “public employees.” Following an election, a Midwest branch of the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) became the exclusive representative of those workers. Under the law, even workers who decide not to join the union could be required to support the SEIU by a compulsory deduction from their paychecks, called a “fair share” fee, as a condition of working as home care providers in Illinois.

In April 2010, a group of these Illinois providers filed a federal class action lawsuit against the State of Illinois and the union. They sought an injunction against enforcement of the fair-share provision and a declaration that the Illinois law violated the First Amendment insofar as it required them, as a condition of employment, to pay a fee to a union that they do not wish to support.

After the federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit dismissed the case, the National Right to Work Legal Foundation (NRWLF) appealed to the Supreme Court on behalf of the workers. 

While the underlying question on appeal was whether the Illinois statute violated the workers’ First Amendment rights, NRWLF also implicitly asked the Court to overrule its 1977 Abood decision, in which the Court held state employees who choose not to join a public-sector union may nevertheless be compelled to pay an agency fee so long as the charges were used to finance union expenditure for collective bargaining, contract administration and grievance handling.

Quasi-Public Employees

The Supreme Court ruled the Illinois statute at issue violated the First Amendment. However, it left Abood untouched. It crafted a distinction between the “full-fledged” public-sector employees in Abood (public employees who are actual employees of the State and over whom the State has most of the control) and the “quasi-public employees” in question here (employees of the individual being cared for and not the State). According to the Court, Abood is applicable only to full-fledged public employees, and therefore, unions may continue to require full-fledged public employee nonmembers to pay an agency fee. 

Justice Samuel A. Alito, writing for the majority, found that personal care providers “are quite different from full-fledged public employees….” He continued, “Abooditself has clear boundaries; it applies to public employees. Extending those boundaries to encompass partial-public employees, quasi-public employees, or simply private employees would invite problems.”

Dissent

Justice Elena Kagan authored an extensive dissent, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen G. Breyer. She defended Aboodand criticized the majority’s conclusion that Abood did not control. “The Aboodrule is deeply entrenched, and is the foundation for not tens or hundreds, but thousands of contracts between unions and governments across the Nation. Our precedent about precedent, fairly understood and applied, makes it impossible for this Court to reverse that decision,” Justice Kagan wrote.

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Labor unions in the public sector depend on compulsory financial support for their bargaining strength and political influence. The Supreme Court in Harrisstated that each year, personal assistants in Illinois pay SEIU more than $3.6 million in fees. Thus, assuming a similar statutory framework, Harris may well have a significant financial impact on unions in Illinois and other states where home health care workers may join unions, including California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. As a result, health care unions in those states may find it less efficient to devote finite resources to organizing these workers. However, for now, public-sector unions will not have to face the potentially drastic financial circumstances that could have been resulted had the Court explicitly overturnedAbood