The Right Takes Aim at Public Sector Unions in a New Supreme Court Case

Jan 23, 2014Richard Kirsch

A dispute over whether home care workers in Illinois can be required to pay union dues is part of a much larger strategy to undermine the progressive power base.

You have to hand it to the right wing: it understands the importance of institutional power more than much of the liberal establishment. It took down ACORN, the organization that registered the most low-income voters of color in the nation, and Democrats in Congress and many big liberal foundations went along with it. Its relentless, decades-long campaign against the labor law that protects private sector organizing has slashed the share of unionized private sector workers to less than 7 percent, while a succession of Democrats in the White House and Congress have stood by.

Since 2010, the right has been focusing its attacks on public sector workers, one-fourth of whom are represented by unions with collective-bargaining rights. It has aimed to weaken bargaining rights in Midwestern states with long histories of union representation and has had (too) much success. This week, it brought that fight to the Supreme Court, in a case that could destroy the financial base of the biggest remaining source of support for government and vital domestic services.

The case is Harris v. Quinn, in which a group of home care workers in Illinois is challenging the state's requirement that the workers pay union dues. The workers are employed by individual patients but are funded by Medicaid. Having unions, in this case SEIU, represent home care workers is part of an admirable strategy of extending collective bargaining to workers who are publicly funded even if they do not work directly for the government. Since federal law does not provide collective bargaining rights to either public employees or domestic home care workers, using state law to organize these workers, who typically get low pay with no benefits, is vitally important to their own well-being and to building a middle-class driven economy.

However, the debate among the Supreme Court justices yesterday did not focus on the narrow question of whether Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich had the power to categorize the home care workers as public employees. Instead, the justices debated whether, because issues of wages and benefits for public employees are inevitably and intrinsically matters of public policy, compelling workers to pay union dues would be an infringement on free speech and association.

The Illinois workers are represented by the National Right to Work Foundation, whose attorney, William Messenger, was eager to expand the case, which suggests it was developed as a political weapon, not a true complaint by a handful of workers about paying dues. Messenger argued, as Lyle Denniston explains at SCOTUSblog, that “anything a public employee union does is an attempt to shape matters of ‘public concern,’ and it should not be able to compel support — even for part of the monthly dues — from workers who oppose the union’s public policy ambitions.”

Just so nobody missed the ideological stakes at the heart of this legal argument, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that workers who favor shrinking the size of government would have their First Amendment rights trampled if the union argued to expand the workforce. The same logic would apply to the union defending the current size of the workforce or how much workers get paid.

Logically, it is impossible for a public sector union to represent its members’ interest in keeping their jobs or in how much they get paid without affecting public policy. This point was made by SEIU’s attorney Paul Smith, who said, “Any outcome of a negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement involving public employees will involve the expenditure of public money in a variety of ways.”

Of course, public employee unions' interest in defending their members is why those unions support increased taxes and funding of government programs. The union positions are not always progressive. Unions sometimes support regressive tax increases. Sometimes AFSCME, which represents corrections officers, lobbies for stricter sentencing or against closing of prisons. But on the whole, in advocating for their members, public employee unions support maintaining and expanding public services, oppose privatization, and are a major source of organizing, funding, and lobbying for those policies and an absolutely vital part of the progressive infrastructure. Hence they are a big target for the right.

When these issues have been debated in the past, the Supreme Court has recognized the legitimacy of required union dues for public employees while insisting that political contributions be voluntary. As Adam Liptak explains in the New York Times, “In 1977, in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court said that teachers who declined to join a union could nevertheless be required to help pay for the union’s collective bargaining efforts to prevent freeloading and ensure ‘labor peace.’ But workers may not be forced to help pay for a union’s purely political activities, the court said.”

That argument may explain why Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. agreed that advocating for increased Medicaid reimbursement would not be by itself a permissible union activity, but argued that the state’s interest in designating a union to maintain labor peace was the determining factor in supporting the mandatory dues. Verilli’s argument may be a good one before this Court, but it defies logic and avoids the real issue of the interwoven nature of public policy and public worker bargaining. The Court should recognize that the effective right of association in public employee unions depends on the unions engaging in public policy to improve their members’ working conditions.

The Supreme Court reporters whom I read all agreed that the Court is unlikely to overturn Abood and outlaw mandatory dues by public employees, with one pointing out that the Court affirmed that position in 2007 in an opinion written by Justice Scalia. There is some reason to think that Chief Justice Roberts could avoid the issue by narrowing the ruling to the question of whether Illinois can designate the home care workers as public employees.

However, a decision to overturn mandatory dues collection by public employees would be a body blow to Americans who believe in establishing collective responsibility for common goods by raising taxes and spending public dollars on government. 

Public employee unions, and unions that are working to develop new ways to represent workers in the private sector who are paid with public dollars, are a leading force for creating opportunity and security in an America that works for all of us. They will continue to be a target of the right. Progressives at every level must support them and work to expand, not restrict, their reach.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

 

Image via Thinkstock

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