The “sleeper case” of the 2013 Term: Harris v. Quinn and the future of unions

Hobby Lobby is all the rage. We get it. Religious freedom, women’s rights, and the all-too-frequently heard “Corporations are people too” will be conversation fodder for the rest of the summer. If you really want to sound smart though, you’re going to want to tell your friends that Harris v. Quinn was the sleeper case of the 2013 term. Public-sector unions are *almost* dead. Here’s what you need to know:

5-cent explanation: The question in this case was – Can public-sector, home-health care workers in Illinois who serve Medicaid recipients be forced to pay union fees even if they choose to not be a part of the union?

10-cent explanation: Illinois has a Medicaid program where recipients who would otherwise need to be in a healthcare facility can hire a home-health care worker (aka personal assistant or PA) to take care of them instead. This has seemingly worked in two ways. For one, it’s cheaper to pay a PA than using alternative options. Second, patients win because they’re more comfortable and tend to have a higher quality of life when cared for in their home.

Some PAs in Illinois formed a union for collective bargaining purposes. So why is it a problem that some of them don’t want to pay union dues? Because whether or not you’re a member, you have to pay a portion of the dues since the union advocates on the behalf of all Illinois PAs. This rule is based on a court decision from 1977, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, that is the foundation of public employee unions. Abood is critical to understanding this case in that Harris tested the precedent set more than 35 years ago.

Here are the arguments from both sides of Harris:

The Harris/PA/Petitioner argument:
These workers’ First Amendment rights have been violated. They are being coerced to financially support a union that wants to “petition the government” for them, but in ways that some of those workers oppose. A union is inherently political in that it inevitably affects the size of government, which is arguably the core philosophical division between Republicans and Democrats and thus kind of a big deal. Abood should be overruled.

The Quinn/Union/Defendant argument:
Abood is the gold standard. As Justice Kagan noted during oral arguments, overruling it would be “a radical restructuring of the way workplaces are run” throughout the country. Also consider that doing away with it would be akin to constitutionally compelling a right-to-work law. *Organized labor rolls over in grave* Moreover, the union’s role is to improve the working conditions of those it represents, not engage in shaping matters of public concern. Abood stands and the PAs pay.

The Decision in Harris v. Quinn:
The Supreme Court voted in favor of Harris in a 5-4 decision. According to Justice Alito, who wrote for the majority, there’s a key distinction to be made between a PA and a typical public employee. Whereas the latter is formally employed by the state, the state’s sole connection to the PA is payment for services and the patient controls all other aspects of the employment (evaluations, remediation, dismissals, etc.). Therefore, a PA is not a public employee, but rather a “partial public employee” that does not fall under the Abood precedent. Thus, no decision needs to be made on the immediate future of Abood and the Court finds it is a violation of their First Amendment rights to force PAs to financially support a labor organization they do not wish to join.

The Court dodged a major ruling and unions aren’t dead… yet. Alito’s opinion painted a target on Abood, and unions, bigger than the target Republicans have on Obamacare. The proverbial gauntlet has been thrown. In his majority opinion, Alito goes through the entire history of Abood, ripping it apart and dismantling it at multiple points, setting up potential arguments nicely for future litigants who want a second try at dealing a final blow to labor unions. Given the blow issued to the California public school teachers and unions weeks before this decision, prevailing winds indicate rough times are ahead for public and private sector unions. Abood’s days are likely numbered.

Final note for our Illinois readers: observe Alito’s shot at the IL pension crisis. In a footnote in his opinion (p. 18), he acutely alerts us to his political views when he jabs, “public-sector unions have helped create a situation in which the state’s pension funds report a liability of more than $100 billion, at least 50% of it is unfunded.” Ouch.

Find more about Harris v. Quinn here and here.

This post was written by ‘Bystandr Elliot Louthen.