WASHINGTON-A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that Illinois home-based care workers can’t be forced to pay dues to a union they don’t want to join.
However, the high court avoided the broadest possible ruling in the case, declining a request by the challengers to limit the ability of public-sector unions to collect fees from all nonmembers.
The court, in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, said the aides, who provide care to the disabled, weren’t full-fledged public employees even though they are paid for their work by the state. Because of that status, the workers couldn’t be required to pay fees to a public-sector union, the court ruled in a 5-4 decision.
Justice Alito said requiring mandatory union fees violated the First Amendment rights of aides that didn’t want to join or support the union.
If the court sided with Illinois and the union, “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,” Justice Alito wrote.
The court’s majority decided against overruling a past precedent that was favorable to public-sector unions, though Justice Alito said the court’s earlier 1977 ruling allowing such mandatory fees rests on questionable footing.
The ruling split along ideological lines, with conservative justices in the majority and liberal justices in the dissent.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissenters, said Illinois had ” a more than sufficient interest” in managing its workforce and administering home-care programs “to require employees to pay a fair share of a union’s costs of collective bargaining.”
Labor lawyers said that more broadly, unions dodged a bullet but may not be able to in the future. Monday’s ruling “sets the table for more challenges to agency fees down the road. And this fact will not make unions sleep any easier,” said Michael Lotito a labor lawyer at Littler Mendelson.
Illinois had authorized Medicaid-paid home-health workers to unionize and collectively bargain with the state. One group of health aides voted to join the Service Employees International Union. The union can’t force all workers to become members, but the contract it negotiated with the state requires nonmembers to pay a fee to the union to cover their share of costs related to workplace representation.
The National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, an antiunion group in Springfield, Va., sued on behalf of eight Medicaid-paid aides, some of whom are covered by the SEIU agreement. Most of the challengers were caring for disabled family members.
The foundation said the Illinois arrangement had forced parents and other relatives taking care of disabled people into union associations they didn’t want. The group said Monday’s ruling would free “thousands of home-care providers from unwanted union control.”
The challengers argued that even though they’re paid by the state Medicaid program, they shouldn’t be classified as state workers because they can be terminated by the individuals who employ them.
Unions argued that because all covered workers benefit from the collective bargaining terms, the mandatory fees prevent nonmembers from free-riding on union members. Unions argued that states should have the right to choose how to manage their workforce and that collective bargaining helps create a stable, well-trained workforce for in-home care rather than caretaking at facilities they contend would be more costly.
“At a time when wages remain stagnant and income inequality is out of control, joining together in a union is the only proven way home care-workers have of improving their lives and the lives of the people they care for,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry.
The Supreme Court decision weakens a tool for organized labor to expand its ranks and could have an impact in several states that have similar arrangements with public-sector unions. Personal assistants in Illinois pay SEIU–Healthcare Illinois and Indiana more than $3.6 million in fees annually, according to court documents.
The Supreme Court has grown more skeptical of organized labor since two George W. Bush appointees arrived in the mid-2000s. The case was seen as a potential test of the more conservative current majority’s approach to collective bargaining issues.
The high court’s ruling declined to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court decision that allowed government entities to require public employees to pay “fair-share” fees to a union that negotiates on their behalf. That ruling did allow public employees to refuse to fund union activities outside collective bargaining, such as political campaigning.
—Jess Bravin contributed to this article.
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