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Supreme Court Takes Big Labor's Hand's out of Worker's Pockets

July 23, 2014

By Justin Sykes

In a move that is consistent with growing American sentiment in recent years, SCOTUS handed down a partial blow to Big Labor today that will prevent heavy handed union leaders from forcibly mandating “partial public employees” pay union dues regardless of whether the employee wants to.

The issue before the court in Harris v. Quinn was whether the First Amendment permits a State to compel personal care providers to “subsidize speech on matters of public concern by a union that they do not wish to join or support.”  In a 5-4 decision, the court held that the First Amendment prohibits the collection of an agency fee from such employees who do not wish to join or support the union.

The ruling gives personal care providers in Illinois the right to choose what is in their best interest and to opt out of paying union dues for representation they do not want. As is the case in many states, Illinois has established the Illinois Department of Human Services Home Services Program (the “Rehabilitation Program”), which operates based on federal Medicaid funds “that provide in-home services to individuals whose conditions would otherwise require institutionalization.” Such programs allow participants to hire “personal assistants” or “personal care providers” to provide homecare services.

Under Illinois law, the Public Labor Relations Act (PLRA) authorized “state employees” to join labor unions and participate in collective bargaining. The PLRA’s provisions applied to “employees of the State” and did not originally include personal care providers employed under the Rehabilitation Program because the State’s role in such employment was “comparatively small” and centered mainly on compensation. The PLRA also contains an “agency-fee provision” also known as the “fair share” provision which forces “members of a bargaining unit” who don’t want to join the union to pay a union fee.

Subsequently, in an action amounting to attempted forced coercion in the 1980’s, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) petitioned the Illinois Labor Relations Board for permission to represent personal care providers employed under the Rehabilitation Program, however the Board denied the SEIU’s petition, citing the fact that Illinois doesn’t exercise the type of requisite control over such “partial public employees.”

Nonetheless, in 2003 Governor Rod Blagojevich, in a move characteristic of his governorship, undercut the Board’s decision with an Executive Order that forced union representation of the state’s personal care providers requiring such employees to pay a so-called “fair share” amount in union fees despite the Board’s previous ruling and their vocal opposition to such payments. The SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana (SEIU-HII) was then designated as the exclusive collective bargaining representative for personal care providers employed under the Rehabilitation Program.

Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court recognizes the First Amendment injustice that was taking place in Illinois by forcibly compelling personal care providers to “subsidize speech on matters of public concern by a union” they never wished or desired to join. The decision is representative of American’s dissatisfaction with organized labor in the U.S., which has been characterized by decreasing membership and a general lack of public sentiment in recent years. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) last year, only 11.3% of wage and salaried workers belonged to unions, which represents a large drop from 20.1% in 1983. Additionally, a Pew Research Center survey from 2013 found roughly half of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of labor unions.

While today’s decision by SCOTUS was not as far reaching as many Americans would have liked to have seen, by striking down what amounted to a basic Union “shakedown” of an important sector of Illinois’ labor force, SCOTUS took steps towards loosening organized labor’s stranglehold on the American work force.

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