June 30th, 2014

U.S. Supreme Court strikes another body blow to public sector unions


Unions have certainly become punching bags recently for anti-union zealots — Republican Governors, mainstream media, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) and their long-standing arch enemy, the National Right to Work foundation. The right to work meaning without union protections so you can work for minimum wages and absolutely no say in how your work is organized and assigned. Incredibly, 24 states have adopted “right-to-work” legislation that undermines unionism. The NRTWF is the organization that sues unions on behalf of workers fed up with their unions.

So arose the court case Harris v. Quinn (the State of Illinois). The SEIU has been organizing low-paid workers in the home health industry for years. Those workers are typically women of color. They serve disabled individuals in their home — hard work by compassionate underpaid people. When they unionize, wages rise a bit.

Unions, like corporations, engage in political activity. Unions contribute to politicians’ election campaigns at a fraction of the amount corporations do, given that the latter have all the cash. Two SCOTUS decisions — Citizens United decision and one this session — made limits of corporate giving disappear. Anti-union groups like the NRTWF exaggerate the amount of union dues spent on political activity and have successfully separated union funds set aside for that activity from funds to run the business of the union — being advocates for their members. Some states require non-members to pay a “fair share fee” to the union in order to take advantage of workers’ benefits negotiated in collective bargaining agreements between unions and government employers. In other states, anti-union legislation has allowed public sector employees to benefit without having to join or to pay the union. Unions call this “free riding.” Alito thinks the phenomenon is “something of an anomaly.”

Imagine that a pharamaceutical company made a life-saving drug that no one wants to pay for or can afford, and the law mandates that the company distribute it free to the public to anyone who would benefit. This imposition on a corporation’s right to demand pay for their product would never be made by the current SCOTUS. Yet that is the equivalent to mandating that unions protect everyone whether or not they pay dues to sustain the union. The former is unimaginable; the latter is what SCOTUS maintains.

In Illinois, there people on disability who qualify for home health care paid by the State Medicaid funds. The home health workers, therefore, are effectively partial state public sector workers. They are partial because, as Alito wrote for the majority, the workers answer to their customers in the home and not to government supervisors. They are linked to the government only by the source of their compensation. Many are now SEIU members.

The NRTWF decided to attack the SEIU by using 8 workers to act as government plaintiffs who complained about the requirement to pay “fair share fees” to the union for representation and ensuring that employers fairly comply with negotiated contracts.

The NRTWF argued that the compulsory fee paid to unions violated First Amendment rights not allowing workers to disagree with the Union’s political positions. Its argument made union political activity central and discounted the myriad of other services and purposes (and what I consider primary) of unions to ensure worker protection against abusive employers.

Even when unions give workers the right to opt out of making special one-time contributions for political campaigns, SCOTUS has ruled that opting out was insufficient. The pro-corporate SCOTUS majority believes even opting out cannot overcome the onerous union goal of political domination (Knox v. SEIU).

So, in a 5 to 4 decision, SCOTUS allows these “partial public employees” to not pay union dues, if they believe they have differences with the politics of their unions.

As the SCOTUS undermining of unions rolls on unchecked by an absent Congress, we are supposed to take solace, as did Justice Kagan in her dissenting opinion, that the Court did not impose “a right-to-work regime for all government employees.” The majority considered reversing a 1976 decision (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education) that does mandate that workers who are not members of the union but do enjoy member benefits must pay a service fee separate from dues associated with lobbying or political campaigns.

The limited Harris v SEIU ruling chips away at union revenues. It appears SCOTUS’ goal is to bankrupt unions, to render them extinct.

Read the entire ruling here.

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This entry was posted on Monday, June 30th, 2014 at 11:43 am and is filed under Rulings by Courts, Unions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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