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Harris v. Quinn Undermines the Rights of American Workers

Jenn Rolnick Borchetta

The Supreme Court took another whack at American workers today in Harris v. Quinn. The ideological conservatives on our high court would have you believe this decision advances workers’ rights. Instead, Harris undermines the rights of American workers: to decent jobs, fair pay and strong unions.

The plaintiffs in Harris are Medicaid personal assistants who provide in-home services to low-income disabled patients. The state of Illinois largely sets the terms of their employment. After a majority of personal assistants in the rehabilitation program selected a union as their representative for bargaining with Illinois, the state and union entered into an agreement that required all personal assistants to pay fees that enable the union to fulfill its obligation to represent those workers—an obligation that is legally mandated.

Under this “fair-share” provision, no one is compelled to join the union. The fees collected are put solely toward the cost of negotiating employment terms and conditions that benefit all employees.

The Harris plaintiffs challenged the fair-share provision as a violation of their First Amendment rights—that is, their freedom not to associate with the union and to not have the union speak for them in negotiations. Yet, for over five decades, it has been the law in this country that because all employees benefit from the union-negotiated contracts and because the government has an important interest in labor peace and exclusive union representation, compelling employees to contribute financially toward union representation simply prevents the “free-rider” problem and does not violate the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court today held that the First Amendment prohibits the collection of union fees from Medicaid personal assistants who do not wish to pay those fees. The holding in Harris is narrow: These particular workers may not be compelled to pay fair share fees. The reasoning that leads the majority to this holding is largely incoherent. “It is not altogether easy to understand why the majority thinks what it thinks,” writes Justice Elena Kagan for the dissent, “Today’s opinion takes the tack of throwing everything against the wall in the hope that something might stick.”

Importantly, the Court did not overturn Abood, in which it previously held (in 1977) that compelling public employees to pay fair share fees did not violate the First Amendment, despite the Plaintiffs’ request that it do so. But the majority devotes pages of dicta to re-writing both Abood and the First Amendment cases on which Abood relied. Along the way, the majority announces—contrary to precedent—that fair share fees “unquestionably impose a heavy burden” on First Amendment rights and all but dismisses the government’s interests in labor peace and preventing free-riders. 

This dictum threatens the rights of American workers more broadly than the Supreme Court majority directly admits. Which might in part explain why this lawsuit was backed by the Walmart Waltons and Charles Koch.

The Supreme Court keeps stacking the deck against American workers.

With Dukes, Nassar, and Vance, it chipped away at workers’ ability to combat employment discrimination—increasing obstacles to class action lawsuits against powerful employers and narrowing the safeguards of Title VII.

With Citizens United and McCutcheon, it decreased the value of workers’ voices in our democracy—letting money and the moneyed monopolize our elections.

With Shelby County and Knox, it opened the floodgates for racially motivated ballot box barriers and weakened the power of unions to advocate for policies that benefit workers.

Now: Harris. Unions secure fair compensation, ensure jobs are safe, and procure resources that workers—like the Medicaid personal assistants—need to get their jobs done. With Harris, the Supreme Court has made it harder for workers to bargain for better employment.

But the Supreme Court is not the final arbiter of our nation’s future. Americans understand that all workers are entitled to decent, safe, and stable jobs. And no court decision will prevent homecare workers from uniting to ensure quality employment and quality care.