The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday delivered a limited blow to public sector unions.  In Harris v. Quinn, the Court held that compulsory union agency fees imposed on Illinois home care workers violate the First Amendment.  However, the Court held back from issuing a more expansive ruling that could have sounded the death knell for public sector unionism as a whole.  Specifically, the Court did not overrule its 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Educ., in which it held that an agency-shop clause was valid for public sector employees so long as the fees are used for collective-bargaining, contract-administration, grievance-adjustment purposes, and other activities “germane to its duties as collective-bargaining representative.” Instead, the Court in Harris distinguished the home care workers from “full-fledged public employees” and declined to apply Abood. As a result, the personal care providers in this case cannot be compelled to accept and financially support the union as their exclusive representative. 

This matter was instigated by a home care worker who challenged Illinois’s Home Services Program (Rehabilitation Program), in which Medicaid recipients who would ordinarily need institutional care can instead hire a personal assistant (PA) to provide care at home.  The homecare recipient controls most aspects of the employment relationship, while the state pays the home care worker.  The state’s partial employer status was created through executive order, allowing the PAs to join public sector unions and engage in collective bargaining through the state’s Public Labor Relations Act.  Under this system, SEIU Healthcare Illinois &Indiana (SEIU–HII) was designated as the PAs’ exclusive representative. Employees who chose not to become full union members were still required to pay agency fees.  Harris, a PA, argued that the state cannot obligate her to “subsidize speech on matters of public concern by a union” that she does “not wish to join or support.”  The Supreme Court agreed, but took care to differentiate PAs from typical public employees: 

Because of Abood’s questionable foundations, and because the personal assistants are quite different from full fledged public employees, we refuse to extend Abood to the new situation now before us. Abood itself 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. 

The Court majority further explained: “In the public sector, core issues such as wages, pensions, and benefits are important political issues, but that is generally not so in the private sector."  Based on that insight, we expect additional challenges to agency fee agreements with public sector unions such as AFSCME and SEIU, among others.  

In essence, the ruling is limited in scope, but does mark the second time in as many weeks that the Court has ruled against organized labor. On Thursday the Court in Noel Canning v. NLRB held that the President’s three recess appointments to the Board were invalid. Both Noel Canning and Harris v. Quinn were narrow (5-4) decisions.