By Steven Greenhouse
The Supreme Court dealt a limited blow to labor unions Monday by ruling that some government employees did not have to pay any fees to the labor organizations representing them. But the court declined to strike down a decades-old precedent that required many public-sector workers to pay union fees.
Writing the majority 5-4 opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. concluded that there was a category of government employee — a partial public employee — who can opt out of joining a union and not be required to contribute dues to that labor group.
Alito wrote that home-care aides who typically work for an ill or disabled person, with Medicaid paying their wages, should be classified as partial public employees and should not be treated the same way as public-school teachers or police officers who work directly for the government.
The court’s decision was a partial, but not total win, for labor’s critics. And while labor did sustain a defeat in this ruling, it did not amount to a crippling loss that unions had feared.
If the court had overturned the precedent requiring many government workers to pay union fees, it could have greatly reduced the membership and treasuries of public-employee unions.
Several of the original plaintiffs were mothers who, helped by Medicaid, were personal home-care assistants to their disabled children and opposed joining the union and paying any union fees.
Alito wrote that unions play such a limited role for “partial public employees” like home-care aides that these aides should not be required to pay union fees — indeed he wrote that such a requirement would violate the aides’ First Amendment rights. He noted that states often set the wage levels for these workers and that unions often do not bargain collectively for them.
The case, Harris v. Quinn, was brought by eight Illinois workers who provided home health care to Medicaid recipients. They asked the court to overrule a 1977 decision that declared that government employees can be required to pay fees to unions for representing them and administering their contracts even if they disagree with the union’s positions. The majority declined to overrule that foundational decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, although Alito voiced strong discomfort with it.
Objecting to the so-called agency fees that the Abood ruling said teachers must pay, Alito wrote in Monday’s majority opinion, “Agency-fee provisions unquestionably impose a heavy burden on the First Amendment interests of objecting employees.”