The U.S. Supreme Court Considers Union Dues Requirement for Public Sector Workers

Megan J. Muoio, January 29, 2014.

On January 21, 2014, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Harris v. Quinn, a case that could have an impact on the future of public employee unions.  The case involves home-care workers in Illinois who, ten years ago, were permitted to unionize and were classified by the Governor of Illinois as state employees for the purpose of representation by the union.  According to the Attorney General of Illinois, the goal of unionization of the home-care workers was to create a professional group of home-care workers with a uniform standard of training, qualifications, and supervision.  As a result of unionization, the home-care workers also received increased wages and health insurance.

Under the Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that public sector employees may be represented by a single union and that all workers in that sector – whether they chose to join the union or not – would have to pay their fair share of dues to support the union’s collective-bargaining activities regarding benefits and working conditions.  The Abood decision also made clear that, although the non-union members can be compelled to pay dues attributable to collective-bargaining activities, non-union members cannot be compelled to pay dues to support a union’s political or ideological activities.

In Harris, eight home-care workers who object to representation by the Service Employees International Union brought a class action, objecting to the requirement that they pay dues to the union.  The union currently represents more than 20,000 home-care workers in Illinois.  The dues paid by the workers are used by the union in negotiations with the state Medicaid program regarding reimbursement rates and wages paid to the workers.  The home-care workers in Harris argue that the union’s negotiations with the state Medicaid program on their behalf are an attempt to petition the government on a matter of public concern – the wages paid to government employees.  The workers claim that this in a violation of their rights of free association and free speech. The workers are urging the Supreme Court to overrule Abood and eliminate the exclusive representation union for public sector employees.

The State of Illinois rejects the workers’ claim that the union’s negotiations for higher wages or reimbursement amounts from the state Medicaid program are a political act.  Instead, the State urges the Court to find that the union’s activities in this case fall squarely within the purview of the Abood case because the union’s negotiations are related to benefits, working conditions and wages for the workers.  The federal government joined the case in support of the State of Illinois and in defense of Abood.

This is an important case because it is very possible that the Supreme Court will overrule Abood entirely, given the Supreme Court’s prior statements.  The Supreme Court recently indicated its hostility to mandatory dues paid to public sector unions by non-members in Knox v. SEIU in 2010.  In that case, the union sought to impose special dues assessments and dues increases on all workers and argued that Abood required members and non-members alike to pay for these additional amounts .  The Supreme Court disagreed and held that non-members were not required to pay additional amounts to the union absent an affirmative vote by the non-members.  The Knox decision was widely considered to be a substantial blow to the power of public sector unions.  If Abood is overruled in Harris, public sector unions will be further – and perhaps fatally – weakened.

A decision is expected by the end of the term.


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