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.”