On June 30, 2014, in Harris v. Quinn, a divided Supreme Court struck down an Illinois law that forced home healthcare aides to pay their “fair share” of union dues even though they did not join the union. The court held that forcing personal care assistants (who were classified as state employees only for bargaining purposes) to pay union fees violated the First Amendment. Further, beyond the Illinois law at issue, a majority of the court openly questioned whether earlier Supreme Court cases that allowed forced union fee arrangements for “full-fledged” public employees remained good law.

Case Background

Like several other states, Illinois law allows disabled Medicaid recipients to hire “personal assistants” or “health aides” to provide in-home services and care. When the Medicaid recipients – or “customers” – hire these health aides, Illinois uses federal Medicaid funds to subsidize the aides’ salaries. Most commonly, these aides are family members who elect to stay home and care for their disabled relatives. Although the Medicaid recipients hire and fire the aides, the state of Illinois classified these family members and other personal assistants as state “employees” for bargaining purposes. However, these healthcare aides were not considered state employees for any other purpose (e.g., state benefits, state personnel protection).

After the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was recognized as the official bargaining unit, Illinois and SEIU entered into a collective bargaining agreement on behalf of the healthcare aides that, among other things, required all covered aides (including those who did not want to join the union) to have their “fair share” of union dues deducted directly from their salaries. In the case of family members providing home care for their relatives (e.g., plaintiff Harris’ 24/7 care for her son), this effectively meant a monthly decrease in the total funds provided by Medicaid for the support of disabled individuals.

Supreme Court Decision

In 2010, Ms. Harris and seven other designated healthcare aides filed suit, alleging that the Illinois law was unconstitutional because it forced them to accept a union as their exclusive bargaining representative and to pay either union dues or a “fair share” fee to subsidize the union’s cost (indirectly at the expense of the disabled Medicaid recipient). In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and held that the First Amendment does not allow a state to “compel personal care providers to subsidize speech on matters of public concern by a union that they do not wish to join or support.”

In earlier proceedings, the 7th Circuit relied on the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, where the Supreme Court held that states could require state employees (i.e., teachers) to pay their fair share of union dues, even if a particular teacher did not wish to join the union. However, Justice Alito, writing for the majority, openly questioned whether Abood remained good law, and suggested that the decision had “questionable foundations” and “failed to appreciate” the differences between forced-fee arrangements for private-sector employees and public-sector employees. While the court stopped short of overruling Abood, the court’s majority refused to extend Abood to the healthcare aides at issue. Specifically, the court reasoned that Abood – “whatever its strengths and weaknesses” – was limited to “full-fledged public employees” and did not apply to “partial public employees, quasi-public employees, or simply private employees.” Unlike the teachers at issue in Abood, for example, these healthcare aides were classified as state employees for bargaining purposes only, and the Medicaid recipient (not Illinois) controlled most aspects of the relationship.

After finding that Abood did not apply, the court analyzed whether Illinois’ contribution law survived First Amendment analysis. The court ultimately concluded that the answer was “no,” finding that the state’s justification for requiring the payment of a fair share fee (i.e., “labor peace”) was not sufficiently compelling in the home health field, where most employees work in private homes. As a result, the court held that:

If we accepted Illinois’ argument, we would approve an unprecedented violation of the bedrock principle that, except perhaps in the rarest 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.

The impact of the court’s decision remains to be seen, and it is unclear whether the court’s ruling will invalidate similar fee laws in other states. At a minimum, however, the 20,000 personal healthcare assistants previously covered by the Illinois rule no longer will have to pay dues or fees if they do not want to join a union. This, of course, will make it more difficult for public-sector unions like SEIU to secure funds to continue their organizing efforts. Moreover, the court’s questioning of the Abood decision foreshadows the court’s potential willingness to overturn Abood altogether – which could radically alter union financing in the public-sector.