Harris Decision Bad But Not Fatal For Teachers Unions

The Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn, a major case regarding the power of public sector unions, was a significant setback for the nation’s powerful teachers unions, but fell short of being the crushing blow that many labor leaders feared. (RELATED: Supreme Court Deals Blow To Unions)

The case concerned a lawsuit by Pam Harris, who was being paid by the state of Illinois on a contract basis to provide home health care for her sick son, Josh. This contractual relationship technically made her a state employee, and state law in Illinois made it mandatory for Harris to pay a representation fee to the Service Employees International Union, which represents Illinois’ home caregivers in collective bargaining with the government. Harris objected to paying the representation fee and sued.

Such mandatory representation fees are referred to as “closed shop” or “union shop” laws, and are designed to eliminate a “free rider” problem that emerges when state employees benefit from union collective bargaining, but do not financially support the bargaining themselves. Laws which forbid such arrangements and allow all employees to be hired without joining a union are referred to as “right to work” laws by supporters.

Under the previous precedent, 1977’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court had ruled that closed-shop public sector unions, including those that exist for public school teachers in many states, were completely legal. In the Harris decision, Justice Samuel Alito narrowed that allowance, finding that home health-care workers like Harris were not “full-fledged public employees” and therefore could not be compelled to pay representation fees.

“You [definitely] put this in the loss column for public employee unions,” Michael Brickman, national policy director for the educational think tank Fordham Institute, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.