NPR Ed
11:29 am
Mon June 30, 2014

A 'Death Knell' For Public Sector Unions? Not Yet

Originally published on Mon June 30, 2014 9:46 am

One of the last two Supreme Court decisions of this term was billed as a potential "final destruction" or "kill shot" for public sector unions. They seem to have been merely nicked by a bullet.

Harris v. Quinn is a class action suit brought by a group of home care workers in Illinois. They challenged the right of unions to charge fees to nonmembers. According to a 1977 case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, public sector unions are entitled to take what they call a "fair share fee" from all employees to cover the costs of representing all workers in a bargaining unit, whether members or not. These funds are decisive for the continued operations of unions that represent public school teachers, police officers, nurses, firefighters, and other state and local employees — including the home health care workers who are beginning to join the two unions named in the current suit, SEIU and AFSCME. The plaintiffs in the case argued that the "fair share" fee violates their rights of free speech and association. The suit was brought with the backing of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a nonprofit with the mission to "eliminate coercive union power and compulsory unionism abuses."

The decision, by Justice Samuel Alito, on initial examination, doesn't strike at the heart of fair share. The Illinois law designated these home health care workers as public-sector employees based on the fact that much of the money to pay them comes from Medicaid. The court refused to expand the "fair share" dues to these workers, who operate as private employees in other respects. On the other hand, while disparaging the precedent, Abood, as "questionable on several grounds," the court didn't overturn the central principle that allows traditional public-sector workers to collect those fees.

Education unions, which are already reeling from the implications of last month's Vergara v. California state ruling that teacher tenure was unconstitutional, had feared that this case could "undermine the ability of workers to press collectively for better public services and basic rights at work," in the words of Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, with 3 million members. Van Roekel spoke to Politico. The NEA, according to a 2012 amicus brief in a similar case, collects "fair share" dues in 20 states. It looks like it can continue for now.

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