The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a major blow to public employee unions on June 30 when it ruled that people participating in state benefit programs cannot be force-unionized.
For more than a decade, states have forced people who are not state workers — moms and dads caring for children with developmental disabilities, home day-care providers for low-income children and others — to pay union dues as a condition of receiving government help. But last month’s decision in Harris v. Quinn chips away at unions’ power to compel membership, strips unions of millions of dollars in dues they never should have received, and lays the groundwork for future courts to free all government employees from the shackles of forced union dues.
To understand why this ruling matters so much, consider the back story: Several years ago, the Service Employees International Union persuaded former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to allow two groups of people to be unionized: people caring for the developmentally disabled in Illinois’ Medicaid program, and day-care providers for low-income children.
Neither group had ever been considered state employees, and rightly so. Most home-based caregivers take care of relatives, while day-care providers look after children from poor families who receive child care subsidies.
Once unionized, the SEIU began making $20 million in dues each year from the two groups. When sitting Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn assumed office in 2009, he issued another executive order allowing the unionization of yet another group of Illinois Medicaid beneficiaries.
Suburban Chicago mom Pamela Harris, whose youngest child has a rare genetic disorder, was one of the parents who would be targeted for union membership. Because she would rather stay home full-time to care for her son than put him in a state facility or day-care center, she qualified for Medicaid benefits from the state worth about $25,000 per year. But the unions wanted a cut of this money.
Harris didn’t want to join the union, so she joined other families who already paid forced dues in a lawsuit challenging the scheme. In siding with Harris against Illinois and the SEIU, the high court addressed a point raised by the Illinois Policy Institute in an amicus brief: Paying dues to a union should not be a condition of receiving help from the state to care for a loved one.
Illinois is not the only place where this has happened. In Michigan, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm created a “dummy” agency to serve as the employer for thousands of day-care providers. This triggered a vote-by-mail “election” in which fewer than 20 percent of affected workers voted. Chalk it up to a combination of indifference and confusion, which union bosses exploited happily to swell their ranks.
Twenty-six states require government employees to pay union dues. These laws mean supporting unions’ political speech is a condition of being a teacher, police officer or other type of government worker. It’s wrong and, fortunately, the high court took a step toward righting that wrong.
The ruling is a victory for thousands of people across the country, but the court could have gone further. It could and should have eliminated union membership as a condition of employment for all people in states that do not have right to work laws. (Nevada is a right to work state.) But at least the court issued unions a stern warning: Don’t extract dues from people who aren’t even employees.
Harris v. Quinn puts union bosses across the country on notice. In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito criticized the holding precedent that permits states to compel union dues from public-sector employees. He dubbed that decision, known as Abood, both “questionable” and “anomalous.” Perhaps some day soon, the court will finish what it started.
Paul Kersey is the director of labor policy at the Illinois Policy Institute.