OLYMPIA, Wash. — It wasn’t the bombshell it might have been, but government employee unions took a major hit on Monday.
In the case of Harris v. Quinn, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling stating that home healthcare workers in Illinois should not be considered full-fledged state employees and thus cannot be compelled to either join a union or pay representation fees to one.
The decision does not, however, allow all public employees to disassociate themselves from unions, as many had hoped. Rather, the court creates a category called “partial public employees” who cannot be required to pay union bargaining fees.
Like Illinois, home healthcare workers in Washington are currently represented by unions, including:
- Service Employees International (SEIU) 925, which has represented 12,000 early learning family childcare providers since 2005; and,
- SEIU 775, which has represented 26,000 home healthcare workers since 2002.
Presumably the court’s action on Monday means those employees could now be permitted to opt out of union participation altogether – a scenario that could devastate the union if employees here react as they have in other states by opting out in droves.
The plaintiffs, backed by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, had sought a more sweeping decision, one that would overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, a 1977 ruling that affirmed the constitutionality of so-called “agency shops,” in which workers can be fired for refusing to join the union or at least paying a fee for collective bargaining services.
Such a decision would have effectively extended “right-to-work” protections to the 26 states – including Washington – that do not presently have them. The court decided the case more narrowly, but left the door open for future challenges.
“The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today in Harris v. Quinn is another significant step towards the undoing of compulsory unionism, both in Washington state and the nation,” said Maxford Nelsen, labor policy analyst with the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based think and action tank. “It marks a major victory for the First Amendment rights of hundreds of thousands of private-sector workers across the country who have been designated ‘public employees for the purpose of collective bargaining’ only and forcibly unionized.
“Today, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the forced unionization of home healthcare workers for what it is: a ‘scheme’ designed to fill union coffers at the expense of workers’ First Amendment rights,” Nelsen continued. “SEIU 775, which represents individual home health care providers in Washington, and other unions representing what the Court called ‘partial public employees,’ should immediately do the right thing and allow workers to choose for themselves whether to support union activity.”
The court twice cited the precedents set in its 2007 Davenport v. Washington Education Association ruling, the Freedom Foundation’s lawsuit against the teachers’ union for violation of state laws which protected workers.
Maxford Nelsen can be reached for comment at (360) 956-3482.f