The Supreme Court Just Dealt a Devastating Blow to Public Unions - NationalJournal.com - FACTOIDS
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The Supreme Court Just Dealt a Devastating Blow to Public Unions - NationalJournal.com

Public unions just can't catch a break these days. The Supreme Court reaffirmed this fact Monday, when it ruled in a 5-4 decision that mandatory public union dues violate members' First Amendment rights.

In the ruling on Harris v. Quinn, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the precedent that had upheld the state of Illinois' right to require membership dues was shaky.

The issue at hand in Harris v. Quinn involves Pamela Harris, a home care worker in Illinois who takes care of her disabled son. Harris is among home care workers who have decided not to unionize through SEIU, opting instead to bargain directly with the Medicaid recipients who decide how much money to allocate to their caregivers.

 

The case posed a challenge to so-called "fair play fees," which allow unions to collect dues from employees who aren't in the union but who still benefit from the bargains unions strike with employers.

In the case of public-sector unions, though, the employer is the government. And for that reason, the challengers in Harris argued, the unions' collective bargaining is inherently a political activity—they're essentially lobbying the government.

The challengers said allowing public-sector unions to collect fair-play fees is therefore requiring non-union employees to support political activities they don't necessarily agree with—a violation of their First Amendment rights.

However, there may be one silver lining for public unions. The Harris v. Quinn ruling is somewhat narrowly tailored to home caregivers, known as personal assistants or PAs.

"PAs are much different from public employees," Alito wrote. "Unlike full-fledged public employees, PAs are almost entirely answerable to the customers and not to the State, do not enjoy most of the rights and benefits that inure to state employees, and are not indemnified by the State for claims against them arising from actions taken during the course of their employment. Even the scope of collective bargaining on their behalf is sharply limited."

As Lydia DePillis explains, GOP backers were friendly to Harris' cause:

Preserving her own right to not support a union, though, wasn't enough for Harris. With the help of the National Right to Work Coalition, an anti-labor group backed by large donors like the Koch and Walton families, she challenged the state's right to designate a union of public employees as their their sole representative. The right has been well settled in case law stretching back to the 1970s, and Harris lost in lower courts. But the Supreme Court took the case, indicating it might be willing to revisit the precedent.

Public sector unions have suffered many setbacks over the past few years—right-to-work laws in states like Michigan and Indiana have drastically limited unions' ability to require members to pay dues. And in 2011 Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker set off a political firestorm when he stripped state workers of their right to bargain collectively.

More than just another instance of union setbacks, the Harris decision is yet another win for conservatives who have been trying to use the First Amendment to push their causes.

The First Amendment has become the GOP's best friend in recent litigation. From campaign finance law (Citizens United) to the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate (Hobby Lobby), it has become their ironclad defense against government regulations. The Harris v. Quinn ruling just added another plate to the GOP's armor.

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