If the justices agree with the sweeping argument made by home
healthcare worker Pamela Harris that compulsory union dues are
forced association and speech prohibited by the U.S. Constitution's
First Amendment, it would essentially establish a national
right-to-work law and deliver a blow to public employee unions.
The case, Harris v. Quinn, seeks to upend the decades-old practice
of including so-called fair-share, agency or union-security clauses
in collective bargaining agreements.
Such provisions require public-sector employees to pay the portion
of union dues covering non-political activities such as contract
negotiations. Union-represented public employees can already opt out
of paying dues that finance political activities.
In the case, argued in January, the justices could revisit the high
court's 1977 decision affirming mandatory public-sector union dues.
Harris is backed by the anti-union National Right to Work Legal
Harvard Law School professor Benjamin Sachs said that if the
perception holds that the Supreme Court saves blockbuster opinions
for the end, it will mean a union loss.
"If the union wins, it means the Supreme Court is affirming
longstanding precedent. That is less of a 'blockbuster' kind of
opinion than overturning longstanding precedent," Sachs said.
Speculation has grown in recent days that the opinion will be
written by Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative appointee of
President George W. Bush who joined the bench in 2006.
The Supreme Court typically distributes its opinions evenly across
terms, and often across months. Harris v. Quinn was argued in
January and is the only case outstanding from that month. Alito is
the only justice who has not authored a January opinion.
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If Alito is writing for the majority in Harris v. Quinn, it could
also signal a loss for labor, experts said.
Alito "basically invited a constitutional challenge to all agency
fees in the public sector" in Knox v. Service Employees
International Union, a case the court decided last term on very
narrow terms, said Professor Samuel Bagenstos of the University of
Michigan Law School.
"Alito suggested that in a later case, the court might
constitutionalize the right to work in the public sector and that's
something the court has been asked to do in this case," Bagenstos
But experts said it was impossible to know exactly what the court
was thinking. There could be multiple minority and no majority
opinions; the case could be decided narrowly - or not decided at
all, they said.
"There could be all kinds of internal dynamics going on in the
court," Bagenstos said.
The case is Pamela Harris, et al v. Pat Quinn, Governor of Illinois,
U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-681.
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