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U.S. Supreme Court

Partial public employees can’t be forced to pay union dues, Supreme Court says

Posted Jun 30, 2014 9:15 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 that home health-care workers who are partly public employees cannot be forced to pay "fair share" dues for union work affecting the terms and conditions of their jobs.

The majority opinion (PDF) on Monday by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the compulsory union dues violated the employees' free speech rights. "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," Alito wrote.

Alito's opinion refused to extend a 1997 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which says public employees may be required to pay mandatory dues to unions as long as the money is not used for political purposes. Alito criticized but did not overrule Abood, saying it did not apply to the Illinois workers who were not full-fledged public employees.

The Illinois home health-care workers were paid by the state with subsidies from Medicare. The state set minimum standards for the health assistants, but it designated the people receiving care as the "employers" of the assistants. A state law said the assistants were public employees for purposes of state labor law, however.

The plaintiffs challenging the required union dues provided home health services to their children and other disabled individuals. Though a union represented the workers, it had no role in setting parameters for hiring, supervision and firing of the workers.

Alito said the Abood court misunderstood prior precedent on the First Amendment issue and failed to appreciate the difficulty of distinguishing between money spent on collective bargaining and money spent on political issues.

"Abood’s rationale, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, is based on the assumption that the union possesses the full scope of powers and duties generally available under American labor law," Alito said. "Under the Illinois scheme now before us, how­ever, the union’s powers and duties are sharply circum­scribed, and as a result, even the best argument for the 'extraordinary power' that Abood allows a union to wield ... is a poor fit."

"Suppose, for example that a cus­tomer fires a personal assistant because the customer wrongly believes that the assistant stole a fork," Alito wrote. "Or sup­pose that a personal assistant is discharged because the assistant shows no interest in the customer’s favorite daytime soaps. Can the union file a grievance on behalf of the assistant? The answer is no."

Alito said the new decision does not call into question the Supreme Court's 1990 ruling, Keller v. State Bar of California, which said members of a compulsory state bar association may be required to pay bar dues for activities connected with ethics rules and attorney discipline. States have a strong interest in allocating the expenses of lawyer discipline to members of the bar, rather than the general public, Alito said.

Justice Elena Kagan dissented in an opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen G. Breyer.

Lead plaintiff Pamela Harris commented on the case in a press release issued by the National Right to Work Foundation. "We celebrate knowing that Illinois moms linked arms and refused to be bullied,” Harris said. “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.”

SCOTUSblog founder Tom Goldstein summarized the impact of the opinion this way: "The unions have lost a tool to expand their reach. But they have dodged a major challenge to their very existence."

The case is Harris v. Quinn.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Freeloading, First Amendment discussed in SCOTUS case on mandatory public-union dues"

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