Supreme Court Limits Labor Union's Reach in Illinois

By Penny Starr | July 1, 2014 | 9:57am EDT

The Supreme Court building in Washington, Monday, June 30, 2014, following various court decisions. The court ruled on birth control, union fees and other cases. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

( In a 5-4 decision on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment prohibits labor unions from collecting fees from Illinois homecare workers who assist developmentally disabled Medicaid patients -- but who refuse to join the union that the state has designated to bargain on their behalf.

The majority opinion in Harris v. Quinn, written by Justice Samuel Alito, sided with the plaintiff, Pam Harris, a suburban Chicago mother who takes care of her disabled son and is paid by Medicaid to do so.

"We celebrate knowing that Illinois moms linked arms and refused to be bullied," Harris said in a statement after the ruling was issued. "Families in Illinois can relax knowing their homes are safe from being a union workplace and there will be no third party intruding into the care we provide our disabled sons and daughters."

Harris refused to join a healthcare chapter of the Service Employees International Union in Illinois, but the state required her to pay a union fee anyway, since the Illinois governor had designated SEIU to be the exclusive union representative of tens of thousands of personal assistants -- solely for the purpose of forcing them into union ranks, Harris argued.  

Harris sued the Illinois governor and the SEIU, declaring that the state had violated the First Amendment rights of personal assistants by requiring them to pay an "agency fee" to a union that they did not wish to join or support.

The Supreme Court ruling provides relief, not to full-fledged public sector workers, but only to those "partial" public workers who are “deemed to be public employees solely for the purpose of unionization and the collection of an agency fee,” Justice Alito wrote.

“Today’s decision delivers a major blow to the public employee unions in Illinois and nationally, and is good news to people like suburban Chicago mom Pam Harris,” Paul Kersey, director of the Illinois Policy Institute, said in a statement.

"The attempts by (Illinois Gov. Pat) Quinn and (former Illinois Gov. Rod) Blagojevich to unionize Medicaid recipients were motivated by greed and politics, not by an interest in helping Illinois families,” Kersey said. “Luckily, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the families in Illinois and nationwide who are fighting to take care of their loved ones.”

The National Right to Work Defense Foundation, which argued the case on behalf of Illinois homecare workers, said the Supreme Court ruling means Illinois homecare providers cannot be forced into union ranks against their will. "The Court's ruling renders unconstitutional similar homecare unionization schemes attempted in at least 18 other states," the right-to-work group added.d

But liberal critics of the court’s opinion painted it as anti-worker.

“As America’s population ages, it is critical that we pursue strategies to help people age with dignity in their homes when feasible,” Katrina Gamble, director of civic engagement and politics at the Center for Popular Democracy. “A key component of this approach is ensuring that the expansion of the home care workforce enjoy livable wages, decent benefits, job training and support, and stability of employment.

“The Supreme Court in Harris v. Quinn struck a blow against this model, going back on decades of settled case law and making it more difficult for home care workers to come together with their clients to bargain for improved working conditions and wages from the state,” Gamble said. “This decision puts the interest of corporations and profits over workers, their families, and the families and children for whom they provide care.”

The SEIU said the ruling is "the latest in a decades-long attack on the rights of working people to join together to improve their jobs and the quality of services they provide.

"They are trying to divide us and limit our power, but we won't stop standing together for our families and our consumers" said Flora Johnson, a home care provider from Chicago, as quoted by the SEIU. "Before we formed our union, I made less than $6 an hour, but by uniting we are set to make $13 an hour by the end of the year. I know from experience that we are stronger together."

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