SCOTUS in Harris v. Quinn: A Small Blow to Unions

Harris v. Quinn: Another Small Blow to UnionsWhile Harris, et al. v. Quinn, et al., the second U.S. Supreme Court decision issued last Monday, may not have received as much press as the Hobby Lobby decision, its consequences may be just as far-reaching and significant for employees and their right to make individual choices about their employment conditions. In Harris, the Supreme Court essentially held that requiring what it termed “quasi-public” non-union employees to pay union fees violated the First Amendment free speech rights of those employees. See Harris, et al. v. Quinn, et al., 573 U.S. ___, at *1 (2014).

In Illinois, like the vast majority of states, Medicaid recipients may request a personal assistant (“PA”) to care for them at home when they need rehabilitation services, instead of staying in an institution. Id. at **1-2. The patients are able to control many facets of the employment relationship, however the State controls many other significant aspects of the relationship, and the PAs are considered state employees under the Public Labor Relations Act in Illinois, which governs collective bargaining agreements. Id. at **2-4. The PAs are represented by a union that entered into a collective-bargaining agreement with the State, which provides, among other things, that PAs who don’t want to join the union nevertheless have to pay union fees for certain activities pursuant to a common “fair share” clause. Id. at **4-5. Fair share clauses, as the dissenting justices point out, are aimed primarily at preventing free-riders in the union—employees that want to reap the benefits of union representation, such as negotiations for better pay, without paying for that representation. Id. at *3 (Kagan, J., dissenting). The problem is, however, that some non-union employees may choose not to join the union to begin with because the union utilizes union member fees to support certain causes or politicians that not all union members agree with.

For just that reason, the Supreme Court held that the “First Amendment prohibits the collection of an agency fee from Rehabilitation Program PAs who do not want to join or support the union.” Id., at *2 (Syllabus). While the Court’s holding sounds awfully narrow—like it only applies to those PAs in Illinois—its reasoning is much broader and will likely be read to prohibit the collection of agency fees from any quasi-public employees that don’t wish to join a union. In reaching its decision, the Court had to square its reasoning with an almost 40-year-old decision that seemed to decide the issue—Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977). The Court in Abood held that the collection of an agency fee from non-union public employees was constitutional. Harris, 573 U.S. at *8. To distinguish Abood and its reasoning and the many cases following it, the Court had to do some rhetorical backflips to distinguish between the significance of collecting an agency fee from non-union public employees as opposed to non-union quasi-public employees. While the Court stopped short of overruling Abood, it did deem it an “anomaly” and strongly hinted that it may overrule it in the future. See id. at *8. In an age in which the once all-mighty unions continue to suffer, Harris certainly does not indicate that the tides will turn for them any time soon.

Dumas and Vaughn Attorneys at Law has law offices in Portland, Oregon and serves clients in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and other states.

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