Harris decision is narrow in scope and impact

U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision regarding Harris v. Quinn (US 11-681 6/30/14), ruled that partial public employees cannot be compelled to pay their fair share of representation costs if they choose to not join the union representing them. This ruling does not overturn the Court’s precedent set by Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Education (1977). That decision requires public employees to pay  their share of representation costs if they do not join the union representing their class of employees at a public agency. Those costs are called “Agency Fees” and can only be used to fund the costs of negotiating contracts and representation of employees in disciplinary actions. These fees are different from dues, which fund all activities of the union.  Because unions representing public employees are their exclusive bargaining agents they have a legal duty to represent all bargaining unit employees, member and non-member, equally. Agency Fees are designed to eliminate the “free rider” problem that would otherwise exist.

The Harris case applies to a specific class of employee who is hired by a private individual, but paid by a public agency, such as the state. Because these employees are paid by the state they are able to organize under a union to bargain for wages and benefits.The court held:

  • “The First Amendment prohibits the collection of an agency fee from Rehabilitation Program personal assistants (home health care workers in Illinois) who do not want to join or support the union.” The Rehabilitation Program workers at issue in this case are not “full-fledged public employees” because they are hired and fired by individual patients, though they are paid by the State via Medicaid. Thus, because they are not “fully-fledged state employees,” they cannot be compelled to pay a fair share fee.

So while the proponents of this case wanted the court to strike down the ability of public employee unions to collect fair share fees from non-members, they only got a narrow decision effecting “partial public employees.”

Make no mistake, this case could have posed a devastating blow to public employee unions across the country.  I appears that the right-wing of the Court, particularly Alito and Roberts, could not find a fifth vote to deal a knockout blow to Abood and public employee unions. Harris offered the right wing of the Court its best opportunity to deliver that atom bomb, and they failed.

The case DID NOT: (a) overturn Abood; (b) rule that agency fees are unconstitutional; or (c) extend the ruling to all public employees. The Petitioners had requested all of the above.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan

The four dissenting justices properly contended that Abood is soundly reasoned and should have been squarely relied on to decide this case. Justice Kagan’s dissenting opinion directly confronted efforts to overrule Abood: “The Abood rule 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.”

This ruling is clearly a defeat for home healthcare workers and the unions representing them in Illinois as well as similarly situated (“partial public employees”) home healthcare workers in other states.

There are numerous cases in the pipeline designed to destroy public employee unions. These efforts, funded by right-wing extremists, such as the Koch brothers, will continue to pit the ability of individual employees to collectively bargain for wages, benefits, and working conditions, against this desire of these extremists to eliminate that ability.