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Public-Employee Unions Threatened by Right-wing Supreme Court case

Written by Gregory Heires   
Monday, 03 February 2014 15:13
A case before the U.S. Supreme Court threatens to cripple the power of public-employee unions and lower the living standard of the workers they represent.

The anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is behind the legal case, arguing that unionized home-care workers in Illinois should not be obligated to pay dues for collective bargaining services.

The court heard arguments from both sides in the case, Harris v. Quinn, on Jan. 21. A decision is expected in June.

The AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union, and the White House are supporting Illinois in the case.

“The Supreme Court’s willingness to take up this case despite the fact that two lower courts very forcefully rejected the arguments being made is a cause for grave concern,” AFSCME Roberta Lynch, deputy director of AFSCME Council 31 in Illinois. “Obviously the labor movement in the public sector would be profoundly damaged if it is required to represent employees who are not required to contribute anything toward that representation.”

The origin of the case dates from Illinois’ 2003 decision to classify home-care workers as state employees for collective bargaining purposes since they are paid with Medicaid dollars administered by the state. Pamela Harris, a home-care worker, agreed to be the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit bankrolled by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

The lawsuit, which was turned down by two courts before reaching the Supreme Court, challenges the precedent established in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which affirmed the right of public employee unions to collect a “fair-share fee,” or dues from members.

Federal law allows workers to be reimbursed for the portion of their dues devoted to politics. The “fair share” rule buttresses the unions’ contention that workers who seek to avoid paying dues are “free loaders” who want to shirk their responsibility to pay for services.

In the lower courts, the foundation argued that mandatory union dues violate workers’ free-speech rights guaranteed under the 1st Amendment. The foundation raised the stakes in the case when it reached the Supreme Court by also challenging the right of unions to be the collective bargaining agents of workers.

Decades of Attacking Unions

Since it was set up in 1968, the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation has slowly chipped away at the legal basis of unionism. It has taken nearly 20 cases to the Supreme Court aimed at undermining the right of unions to represent workers and collect dues.

The foundation is the legal arm of the National Right To Work Committee, which on its website describes its agenda as combating “compulsory unionism through an aggressive program designed to mobilize public opposition to compulsory unionism and, at the same time, enlist public support for Right to Work legislation.”

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is clear about its anti-unionism.
In a section on its website called “How Can I Help?” the foundation says, “No force is inflicting more damage on our economy, citizens, and cherished democracy than the union bosses.”

Between 1991 and 2005, the foundation received 85 grants totaling $4.54 million from conservative foundations, including the Castle Rock Foundation, John M. Olin Foundation, Inc., and the Walton Family Foundation, according to Media Transparency. The foundation also has links to the Koch brothers.

Currently, the foundation is involved in nearly 300 legal actions nationwide in courts and administrative agencies, including the National Labor Relations Board, according to its website. It has a full-time staff of 11 attorneys, who are working with hundreds of local attorneys throughout the country.

A Radical Restructuring of the Workplace

At the Jan. 21 Supreme Court hearing, Associate Justice Elena Kagan underscored the far-reaching implications of Harris v. Quinn, noting that the discussion ultimately is about “a radical restructuring of the way workplaces are run” throughout the country. Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy were clearly sympathetic to the foundation’s arguments that the case raises legitimate questions about public employee unionism, including the right of unions to speak on behalf of workers and affect public policy, as well as their impact on the size of government.

Predicting the outcome of Supreme Court cases is never easy. But court watchers have mentioned a number of possible decisions.

The first, of course, would be that the court would let precedent stand, leaving the status quo in place. A narrow ruling would only affect home health care workers.
But if the court decides that fair share is unconstitutional, unions would be forced to devote resources to representing workers who refuse to pay dues.

Under current practice, unions are able to collect dues through automatic payroll deductions from “agency fee payers,” workers who have not signed up. Unions would need to recruit those workers to avoid losing substantial dues funding.

A ruling in favor of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation would, of course, hurt the Democratic Party by defunding unions and further undermining their political activities.

A Threat to Decent Home Care

Together, AFSCME and SEIU represent 600,000 home care workers.

A decision against the unions would also undermine the quality of home care.
“Home care workers in Illinois have formed a union and bargained improvements in wages, health care benefits and training,” Christine Senteno writes on a log on SEIU’s website.
“These kinds of improvements have been shown to help states reduce turnover and make it easier for their citizens to recruit and retain home care workers,” Senteno says. “Reducing turnover and improving recruitment and retention can vastly improve quality of care for seniors and people with disabilities, and allow them to remain in their homes to live with dignity, rather than being forced into institutionalized care.”

Keith Kelleher, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, told the Los Angeles Times that unionization has not only improved the lives of employees and the people for whom they care, but it has also saved the government billions of dollars in administrative expenditures.

Worsening Inequality

Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson suggests in an op-ed on the court hearing that the home-care workers (and more broadly, low-wage workers) stand to become the ultimate victims if the ruling comes down in favor of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which argues that home care workers are independent contractors and therefore should not be treated as public employees. He points out that “a ruling that neuters the organizations that poor, working women have joined to win a few dollars an hour more would put a judicial seal of approval on the United States’ towering economic inequality.”

Before they unionized, home-health care workers in Illinois earned $7 an hour without benefits. Now that they are covered by a union contract, they earn $11.65 per hour and enjoy health-care and other benefits.

“The eight workers who brought the lawsuit the court hearing Tuesday don’t want to pay dues to the union that won them their raises, though I’ve seen no reports suggesting they’ve volunteered to give back this additional money and forgo health insurance,” Meyerson writes, in a jab at Harrison and the seven other workers.

Whatever the outcome of Harris v. Quinn, the case is another sad example of how Americans workers sometimes stupidly act against their own economic interests. your social media marketing partner
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