January 23, 2014

The State Worker: Case before high court could shake public unions

Maybe you haven’t heard about Harris v. Quinn, but you will, especially if the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling dooms public-employee collective bargaining.

Maybe you haven’t heard about Harris v. Quinn, but you will, especially if the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling dooms public-employee collective bargaining.

The legal storm started a few years ago when Pamela Harris and eight other Illinois in-home care workers said they didn’t want SEIU’s representation and shouldn’t have to pay any money to the union.

Their lawsuit against the state and Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn challenged nearly 40 years of case law that says unions can’t compel payment for political activities but can charge for negotiating contracts, since all workers benefit from collective bargaining.

Attorney William L. Messenger argued in court on Tuesday that even those payments violate First Amendment free-association rights because government unions exist to influence public policy.

In Illinois for example, in-home care workers earned $7 per hour with no benefits before unionizing. They now earn $11.65 per hour with health and other benefits, compensation paid with public Medicaid dollars administered by the state according to a contract negotiated with SEIU.

“(The workers) are being forced to support an organization, here the SEIU, to speak or petition the State over its Medicaid (home care) rates,” said Messenger, who works for the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Foundation, according to a transcript.

(The foundation two years ago was on the winning side of another U.S. Supreme Court decision against SEIU Local 1000 for illegally coercing 28,000 employees to finance political campaigns in 2005 and 2006.)

Union attorney Paul M. Smith countered that legal precedent favors the union’s position and that organizing those workers makes the state a better employer, produces a more stable workforce and, in this case, enhances patients’ in-home care and saves money.

“Ten years ago, the State of Illinois made a decision about the best way to deliver home-care services to thousands of persons with physical disabilities in the State who without those services would need to live in institutional settings,” Smith said.

While the lower courts have stuck with legal precedent, the justices’ questions on Tuesday indicated the nine-member high court will likely issue a split decision in June, with Justice Antonin Scalia the swing vote, experts said. The ruling could have sweeping impact, be limited to Illinois or uphold the status quo.

“If anything happens, it will be sent back to the lower courts,” with instructions to make certain that Illinois home care workers have a clear-cut choice whether to support union activities, predicted Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University.

But UC Davis law professor Ash Bhagwat said the court seems to moving toward eliminating laws that require union membership as a condition of employment.

His prediction: “The odds are not with the unions.”

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