With 'Harris' Ruling, Supreme Court Silences Voices of Working Families

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, voted to brush aside 40 years of legal precedent and eliminate fair share, or agency fee, arrangements for Illinois home health care workers. National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said the ruling in Harris v. Quinn, in addition to undermining the rights of public workers, creates more uncertainty and instability in the workplace as the nation continues to struggle to overcome the devastating effects of the Great Recession.

“Quality public services, economic stability and prosperity starts with strong unions, but today the Supreme Court of the United States created a roadblock on that path to the American Dream. This ruling jeopardizes a proven method for raising the quality of home health care services—namely, allowing home health care workers to join together in a strong union that can bargain for increased wages, affordable health care and increased training,” Van Roekel said.

The case against the state of Illinois was filed by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW), a political group funded by billionaires like the Koch brothers and Walton family. It’s the latest in a decades-long effort to weaken the rights of working people and make it more difficult for them to join together to improve their jobs and the quality of services they provide.

The plaintiff, Pamela Harris, is an Illinois home-care provider who didn’t want to pay her fair share for union representation, as required by Illinois law.  All union members who enjoy the benefits, rights, and protections of a contract should, in fairness, and must, according to Illinois state law, contribute to maintaining that contract. Sometimes called “agency fee,” fair share is a percentage of full union dues, based on the actual cost of collective bargaining, contract maintenance, and other services provided to all union members.  Fair share dues are not used for political or ideological activities.

NEA, joined by the California Teachers Association and Change to Win, a federation of labor unions, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court to expose the truly radical nature of NRTW’s arguments and underscore their audacious claim that public-sector collective bargaining itself is constitutionally suspect.

Writing for the minority, Justice Elena Kagan said that although the Court made the harmful decision to strike down fair share requirements for home health aides in Illinois, it did not deliver all what the petitioners wanted, namely to impose right-to-work for all government employees.

“For many decades, Americans have debated the pros and cons of right-to-work laws and fair-share requirements,” Kagan wrote. “The petitioners in this case asked this Court to end that discussion for the entire public sector. The good news out of this case is clear: The majority declined that radical request.”

Employers and states have filed in support of fair share arrangements—because they know they work. In Illinois, home-care providers say their collectively bargained contracts have led to more job security, better training and support for workers, and consequently, and most importantly, to much improved care services for their patients.

“Agency fees are a common-sense, straight-forward way to ensure fairness and protect equity and individual rights,” explains Van Roekel. “Every educator who enjoys the benefits and protections of a negotiated contract should, in fairness, contribute to maintaining the contract. And fair share simply makes sure that all educators share the cost of negotiations for benefits that all educators enjoy, regardless of whether they are association members.

The White House also publicly criticized the Harris ruling, saying it “will not only make it significantly harder for these dedicated employees to get a fair shake in exchange for their hard work, but will make it harder for states and cities to ensure the elderly and Americans with disabilities get the care they need and deserve. The Administration remains committed to defending collective bargaining rights. ”

Van Roekel, although deeply troubled by today’s decision, said public sector workers will continue to organize—in public sector bargaining states and non-bargaining states, in agency fee states and right to work states.

“Public sector workers know that a union is the best way for all of us to ensure good schools, quality public services and economic prosperity.”

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  • Ken Mortland

    The rationale Justice Alito offers to explain the majority decision in Harris v. Quinn is that the Illinois health care workers’ situation is unusual. He points out that much of the material open to collective bargaining in that market is determined by the legislature; while at the same time he carefully ignores the fact that the statutes were a result of collective bargaining between the state of Illinois and SEIU. In Justice Alito’s perception, the union can not deliver the same breadth of services it can deliver in other situation. Even that presumption is still open to debate, but let’s give him that point for now.

    If the union delivers less service, what should be the resolution in this case. Justice Alito has made a very good case for reducing the fair share “agency fee”, provided for in the underlying decision of Abood. Making the fees better represent the level of service would have been a logical outcome. However, at this point Justice Alito makes a logical leap and declares the concept of fair share “agency fees” unConstitutional in this situation. That’s a gross overreaction to the circumstances and unsupported by the facts of the case. Ken Mortland, retired teacher, Kirkland, WA

  • This is not a constitutional matter, and didn’t belong before the Supreme Court. It belonged solely to the State of Illinois. The Supreme Court should be paying more attention on bills passed by Congress that are in violation of the First Amendment. As each year passes we are eliminating workers’ rights; forgetting that a worker that feels necessary and appreciated, works harder and produces a better product. This is beginning to make me feel as if our government is trying to bring back feudalism. Our Congress seems to think it is our Country’s elite and deserves more than the people it was created to represent. Worst of all I see our middle class being destroyed. Teachers and Public Schools have already taken a beating that affects the future of our children. When will our government return to “A government of the people, by the people, and for the people?”

    • I wholeheartedly agree with you that Article II, Section 8 of the US Constitution, the “elastic clause”, has been stretched like Saran Wrap over every aspect of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness totally destroying the IX and X Amendments. Statehood is merely a means of Federal control, sorry Mr. Madison (The namesake of your capital, er federal administrative center.)
      I am no longer a Californian, I live on the West Coast of Amerika.

  • William Hutt

    At a time when the percentage of US union membership has fallen to almost half of what it was in the early 80″s it is crazy that unions, especially our teachers unions, fail to address the key reasons why individuals would want to be union members, wages, benefits, and job security. Instead we have bloated organizations (The NEA has over 350 people on salary making over $100,000 a year, and multiple individuals making well over a quarter million a year.) which want to push a single political party agenda, not recognizing that teachers come from all political persuasions.
    If the NEA/CTA wants my membership back they can start by paying their people no more than the least paid full time teacher, having no better retirement or benefits than the least member of their organization. That may stimulate those who truly care about our wages and benefits to work for us, and get rid of those who feel the need to force dues for their own personal gain and the advancement of their own agendas to leave.

  • May I recommend that NEA and CTA plus Locals start adding to the reasons the protections of educators and other is a good thing is the right/freedom to speak and economic security when doing so. Without union protections teachers and others cannot speak up when advocating for students or patients in this case.

    Teachers care about their students and their welfare. Administrators are number crunchers, etc. who do not. When I teacher speaks up for programs and interventions for students that is a good thing. Without protections parents will have NO idea what is going on in the classroom. Who is going to tell them? Who is going to speak up for good programs in meetings? Who is going to report issues that make the school and administrators look bad, or even other teachers or a student bully if the administrator has a pet person or student. That has happened, like a sports star or a teacher who is a “yes” supporter of the administration.

    This current list of reasons as stated in this quote: “namely, allowing home health care workers to join together in a strong union that can bargain for increased wages, affordable health care and increased training,” is more selfish in nature.

    Think about who else will read these comments and take quotes from them for their own agendas.