Here’s Why SCOTUS Harris Ruling Is Unwelcome News for Unions

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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.”

The ruling was a rather direct divergence from precedence already in place in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, Hanson v. Denckla, and Machinists v. Street, and a reversal of the appeals court ruling. Specifically, the court found Abood to be definitionally broad to the point of being problematic, saying the ruling “does not seem to have anticipated the magnitude of the practical administrative problems that would result in attempting to classifying public-sector union expenditures as either … expenditures for ‘collective-bargaining, contract administration, and grievance-adjustment purposes’ … or nonchargeable … expenditures for political or ideological purposes.” The cases of Hanson and Street were partially dismissed as they did not take place in the public sector, and Abood was criticized for leaning on and misreading both cases.

“The Abood Court seriously erred in treating Hanson and Street as having all but decided the constitutionality of compulsory payments to a public-sector union. As we have explained, Street was not a constitutional decision at all, and Hanson disposed of the critical question in a single, unsupported sentence that its author essentially abandoned a few years later,” read the majority opinion.

The dissenting opinion differs in that it views Abood as rightly applicable to the present case. “Our decisions have long afforded government entities broad latitude to manage their workforces, even when that affects speech they could not regulate in other contexts,” argues Kagan’s dissenting opinion. One thing that the dissent actually praises in the majority ruling, though not in a particularly good willed sense, is the fact that while the majority gives a “mistaken” criticism of Abood, it believes it unlikely, or rather “impossible” for the court to overrule Abood, an event that would have a far larger effect on unions than the present ruling ever could. While the dissenting opinion might find it impossible, others are already considering the possibility that a later case might do just that.

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