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Supreme Court blocks public employee union from collecting dues from workers who object

Debra Erdley
| Monday, June 30, 2014, 9:18 a.m.

The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision along ideological lines allowing public-sector home health care workers in Illinois to refuse to pay union dues could limit the ability of other public-sector unions to collect dues, legal observers said on Monday.

The majority opinion by Justice Samuel Alito held that automatic collection of dues violates First Amendment rights of Illinois home care workers — some of whom were related to patients — who objected to union representation.

“This case presents the question whether the First Amendment permits a state to compel personal care providers to subsidize speech on matters of public concern by a union that they do not wish to join or support. We hold that it does not,” Alito wrote in the opinion that strong conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy joined.

More liberal Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissented.

Union membership remained static in 2013 at 11.3 percent of wage and salary workers, the same as in 2012, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among public-sector workers, 35.3 percent were union members, more than five times the rate of private-sector workers at 6.7 percent, the agency found.

Though narrowly defined, the ruling could be a setback for labor unions that bolstered their ranks and bank accounts in Illinois and eight other states by signing hundreds of thousands of in-home care workers. It could lead to an exodus of members who will have little incentive to pay dues if nonmembers don't have to pay.

In Pennsylvania, where public employee unions do not represent home health care workers, experts anticipate the ruling will not immediately affect the state's 300,000-plus municipal, school and state workers represented by unions. Yet it comes as public employee unions face pushback from Pennsylvania officials grappling with soaring public pension costs. At least two bills to outlaw payroll deductions for public employee union political activities are pending in the General Assembly.

“This is a victory, in the sense that (the impact) is limited for unions. Nevertheless, it does not bode well for the future and what the court might decide,” said political science professor Kenneth Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, which represents coaches and faculty at 14 state-owned universities.

An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Medicaid-paid home health care workers in Pennsylvania are not represented by collective bargaining agreements and organizing efforts continue, said Neal Bisno, chair of the United Home Care Workers of Pennsylvania, a joint effort of SEIU Health Care PA and AFSCME.

“This decision is not going to impede our efforts,” Bisno said.

In the Illinois case, workers led by Pamela Harris, an aide who cares for her disabled son at home, and backed by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation said it wasn't fair to make someone pay fees to a group that takes positions with whom the fee-payer disagrees.

They claimed the “fair share fees” unions use to subsidize collective bargaining costs violate their constitutional rights by compelling them to associate with the union.

The state argued that home health care workers are the same as other public workers because Illinois sets their salaries and they must work out any dispute over pay with the state.

The court's decision could open the door to similar challenges, said Nate Benefield, vice president of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market policy group in Harrisburg.

“It didn't strike it down everywhere, but it possibly raises challenges in the future that public-sector employees being forced to pay into the union violates their First Amendment rights,” Benefield said.

In Washington, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka vowed to fight efforts to rein in public-sector unions.

“Make no mistake: The fate of workers cannot and will not be decided by one Supreme Court decision,” said Trumka, who grew up in Greene County. He noted that the ruling reaffirmed the right of public employees to organize, even as it ruled for the Illinois workers who objected to union.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or

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