Though not as damaging to public sector unions as a more aggressive decision would have been, a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday has dealt a significant blow to organized labor with 5-4 decision that again fell along the court's ideological divide.
"Today’s decision to limit workers’ freedom to form unions is a slap in the face to the millions of people trying to make ends meet in America today." —Sarita Gupta, Jobs With Justice
In the case of Harris v. Quinn, backed by the virulent anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the court sided with Pamela Harris and other home health care workers in Illinois who claimed that their First Amendments are infringed when compelled to pay fees to the union that bargains with the state on their behalf.
The conservative majority ruled that because home health workers operate much differently than most other public employees in the state — as they work in private homes and receive little direct public oversight — they should not fall under the same guidelines as other public sector employees.
Though the narrow interpretation restricted the impact of the ruling to Illinois, workers rights advocates still consider the decision a defeat for organized labor. Groups blasted the court for undermining hard-fought efforts to improve and maintain working conditions for union members, especially the vulnerable homecare workers most directly impacted by the decision.
“Today, in an overreaching decision, the Supreme Court limited collective bargaining rights of Illinois care workers and attacked workers’ rights at the very core," said Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice. "This ruling serves the interests of anti-worker extremists at the expense of these invaluable workers who care for our families and our children."
And Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, said: "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."
US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) responded with a rebuke that put the decision in a larger context for organized labor. “Today’s Supreme Court decision by Justice Alito and four other extreme right-wing Republicans," said Sanders, "is another attack on the rights of workers to collectively bargain for higher wages and decent benefits. Make no mistake: this decision will lead to an increase in income inequality, a further decline in the wages of middle-class workers and an increase in poverty."
Writing the dissenting opinion from the liberal wing of the court, Justice Elena Kagan voiced relief that the conservative justices did not go beyond the narrow question before the court by leaving intact a seminal case from the 1970s, called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which affirmed the right of public sector unions to collect bargaining fees from workers who may not be union members but nonetheless benefit from the collective bargaining process.
The petitioners in this case asked this Court to end that discussion for the entire public sector, by overruling Abood and thus imposing a right-to-work regime for all government employees. The good news out of this case is clear: The majority declined that radical request. The Court did not, as the petitioners wanted, deprive every state and local government, in the management of their employees and programs, of the tool that many have thought necessary and appropriate to make collective bargaining work.
The bad news is just as simple: The majority robbed Illinois of that choice in administering its in-home care program.
As The Nation magazine's Michelle Chen points out, one key result of the court's decision will be the negative impact on home health workers in Illinois and the patients they are responsible for:
The ruling claws back on the real material gains that collective bargaining won for homecare workers. Outside of Illinois’s state program, workers in the sector typically earn around $20,000 per year and suffer tremendously stressful, often exploitative working conditions. Only last year did they officially become eligible for federal minimum wage and overtime rules, following a hard-fought campaign by domestic workers’ advocates to end the Labor Department’s longstanding exemption for homecare providers.
Illinois health aides, by contrast, made real progress after joining SEIU as direct employees of the state. Part of a national campaign to unionize the sector, the workers collectively bargained for higher wages and labor protections typical of union workers but long denied to other health aides, including health benefits and training.
Flora Johnson, a home care provider from Chicago, expressed her dismay with the anti-union sentiment expressed by the court. "They are trying to divide us and limit our power," said Johnson in a statement, "but we won't stop standing together for our families and our consumers. 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."
And Gupta—noting the potential future implications that could follow from the Harris decision—concluded: "The majority of people in this country support fair wages, good benefits and safe jobs for everyone – and unions are on the front lines of protecting those rights for working people. Today’s decision to limit workers’ freedom to form unions is a slap in the face to the millions of people trying to make ends meet in America today.”