A Supreme Court ruling on labor unions’ mandatory collection fee was finally decided on Monday, and it doesn’t bode well for unions. Even so, the ruling on Harris v. Quinn is ultimately a good law — even if you disapprove of the political backing behind the political free speech case. Bringing in the case is Pam Harris, a mother and a care provider for her son, Josh Harris, who has Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome, a rare lifelong genetic condition with an assortment of major health issues. Like many in his situation, Mr. Harris had his mother as his home-care provider on a contractual basis; the state of Illinois offers a financial benefit for those who work in said capacity.
As a contracted caregiver, she falls into the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), meaning that she’s subject to mandatory union fees. Based on freedom of speech, she asserts that her right to disassociate from the political demands of unionization is violated by this required financial backing of union activism, regardless of whether or not she’d benefit from pay or benefit changes stemming from such activism automatically — a reality beyond her control.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, considered one of the more conservative judges, was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. Elena Kegan dissented alongside Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, making the case a five to four split. The new law greatly alters what currently legal backlog has set in place, and has union interests already voicing objections and concerns regarding the ruling.
In a statement given via the official website, SEIU President Mary Henry gave a statement on the ruling. “No court case is going to stand in the way of home care workers coming together to have a strong voice for good jobs and quality home care. At a time when wages remain stagnant and income inequality is out of control, 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,” said Henry. “They are trying to divide us and limit our power, but we won’t stop standing together for our families and our consumers,” said Flora Johnson, home care provider from Chicago.
The “they” in question is likely a reference to those who supported Harris’ suit, namely conservative oil billionaire Charles Koch, the Waltons, and the Bradleys, all with business interests that run counter to union goals. However, it’s hardly unusual for the plaintiff or his or her backing to be self-interested. No demands of objectivity are placed on them. The responsibility for a legally sound ruling falls on the court, and that is arguably what was done. The majority ruling draws a line between public and private sector union interactions — between a union in opposition to a government contractor and a union organizing against big business — as well as the difference between the state “authoriz[ing] the imposition of an agency fee” and for the state to itself “actually impose the fee.”