In a narrowly crafted 5-4 ruling written by conservative Justice
Samuel Alito, the court said plaintiff Pamela Harris and others who
provide in-home care for family members and others with disabilities
are "partial" or "quasi" public employees and cannot be forced to
financially support a public employees union. The court's four
liberal justices dissented.
The court did not, as the plaintiffs asked and unions feared,
overturn its 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.
In that case, the high court affirmed that collective bargaining
agreements can require public-sector employees to pay the portion of
union dues not spent on political activities.
Still, the court delivered the most important labor ruling in its
nine-month term wrapping up Monday, likely making it more difficult
for unions to organize home care givers in future.
Unions said the ruling will worsen conditions for low-wage workers
and lead to substandard in-home care. Anti-union groups lauded it as
an interim victory.
"Families in Illinois can relax knowing their homes are safe from
being a union workplace and there will be no third party intruding
into the care we provide our disabled sons and daughters," Harris
Harris cares for her adult son Josh Harris, who has a rare genetic
syndrome and needs around-the-clock care. She and other plaintiffs
were represented by the anti-union group the National Right to Work
Legal Defense Foundation.
In Illinois, as in many states, home-based personal care workers who
assist the disabled are paid with funds from the state-federal
Medicaid health insurance program as state employees. The practice
is meant to lower overall care costs by keeping disabled individuals
at home and out of institutions.
The workers were covered by a collective bargaining agreement that
subtracts dues from Medicaid payments for non-political activities
performed by the Service Employees International Union Healthcare
Harris argued that they were required to subsidize speech they did
not support in violation of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.
'A FAIR SHAKE'
A White House statement said President Barack Obama was disappointed
the court had differentiated between in-home care givers and other
public sector workers.
"The court's decision will not only make it significantly harder for
these dedicated employees to get a fair shake in exchange for their
hard work, but will make it harder for states and cities to ensure
the elderly and Americans with disabilities get the care they need
and deserve," the White House said.
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Alito wrote that categorizing in-home care workers as public
employees would be a "substantial expansion" of the standard the
court approved in the Abood case.
"Illinois deems personal assistants to be state employees for one
purpose only, collective bargaining," Alito wrote.
In-home care givers collectively paid more than $3.6 million
annually to the union, according to court records.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for dissenters, said the Abood case was
so "deeply entrenched" it made it "impossible" for the majority to
reverse it. Yet, "today's majority cannot resist taking potshots at
Abood," Kagan wrote. SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said, "Joining
together in a union is the only proven way home care workers have of
improving their lives and the lives of the people they care for."
Joel Barras, an attorney with the firm Reed Smith who represents
employers, said while the ruling was a loss for unions they avoided
the "potentially devastating opinion many anticipated."
The anti-union group the Center For Union Facts said the ruling was
a cause to celebrate but was "by no means a 'mission accomplished'
"There are still millions of public sector employees who are forced
to pay dues and fees to unions they never voted to join," said the
group's president, Richard Berman.
The case is Pamela Harris, et al v. Pat Quinn, Governor of Illinois,
U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-681.
(Editing by Will Dunham, Bernadette Baum and Grant McCool)
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