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.
While not a victory for teachers unions, they avoided what could have been a far more devastating blow. There were hopes among some conservative activists that the court would entirely strike down Abood and institute a right to work standard for public-sector employees across the entire country.
If that had been the outcome, it is possible that hundreds of thousands of teachers would have dropped out of their unions and ceased paying dues, thereby drastically rolling back the power of organized labor in education.
That would have been a major development in one of the few fields where organized labor remains a formidable force. The California Teachers Association, for instance, has over 320,000 members and commands $190 million in dues every year.
Instead of gutting teachers unions, Alito narrowly tailored his ruling to the matter of contracted health care employees, declining to expand the case to teachers, police, and other full-blown public employees.
Teachers unions aren’t out of the woods, however, as Justice Alito’s decision seems to set the stage for future cases to allow for a general rollback of Abood. Alito described the older case as an “anomaly” built on “questionable foundations,” and went out of his way to say that public employee unions are fundamentally different entities with different rights and restrictions from private employee unions.
Alito’s commentary strongly suggests that a case more directly tailored against all public sector unions could win a resounding victory before the court.
Just such a case may be brewing out in California. In a case currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, several California teachers are arguing that their forced dues payments to the California Teachers Association are unconstitutional.
The case, which is being litigated by the conservative Center for Individual Rights, could be before the Supreme Court within a couple years. Center for Individual Rights President Richard Pell was swift to see Alito’s decision as a positive sign.
“Today’s decision is a good sign of things to come,” Pell told Politico.
The nation’s teachers unions were quick to lash out at the decision and observe the danger it poses to state and local unions.
“By casting doubt on case law that has been settled for decades, the court’s ruling… creates insecurity and instability for employers and unions throughout the public sector,” National Educational Association President Dennis Van Roeckel said in a statement.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was somewhat more optimistic in her own statement, condemning the decision but also saying the court “upheld the importance of collective bargaining and unions to families and communities.”
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