Harris v. Quinn: Victory for workers!

June 30, 2014 | By DEBORAH LA FETRA

In Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court today struck down an Illinois executive order and law that declares all personal home healthcare assistants to be public employees, for the sole purpose of being represented by a union that seeks to lobby for greater government spending (Medicaid) on home healthcare. Under the Illinois law, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) garnished the personal assistants’ Medicaid checks, diverting money meant to reimburse healthcare costs to the union’s coffers.

In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Alito, the Court distinguished the personal assistants in this case from full-fledged public employees, who can be compelled to support the union under the Court’s 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.  Because Abood assumed that the workers were full-time government employees, the Court in that case accepted the state’s interest in promoting “labor peace” and avoiding “free riders” as sufficient reasons for garnishing workers’ wages for the union.  The Harris majority held that rationale makes no sense in the context of personal assistants who work at home, so Abood does not apply.  The Court then applied its standard strict scrutiny analysis for First Amendment cases and held that no compelling state interest justified coercing the personal assistants into the union.

Pacific Legal Foundation, along with the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence and others, filed an amicus brief arguing that compelling personal care providers to be deemed public employees for the purpose of being represented by a union violates the First Amendment guarantee that Americans cannot be compelled to speak or associate, or petition the government, against their wishes.  In a victory for First Amendment rights, the union’s attempt to dragoon home healthcare workers and garnish their Medicaid payments failed, a victory for the workers, most of whom are taking care of disabled relatives in their own homes.

The Court acknowledged the elephant in the room, that a public employees union’s “collective bargaining” function is indistinguishable from any other lobbying activities.  Public employees often find their roles as employees in conflict with their identities as citizens and taxpayers.  Public funding necessarily involves trade-offs, and unions—representing only one side of the debate—should not have the ability to coerce employee-citizens to support the union’s position.  The Court recognized the “questionable” and “anomolous” foundations of Abood, which grants public employee unions special treatment that allow them to garnish worker paychecks instead of requesting donations for their activities like every other interest group.  Workers do have a procedure for opting out of the union’s “political” activities, but in the case of public employee unions, all activities, including collective bargaining (lobbying the government for benefits), are political.  Unfortunately, the Court did not overrule Abood, choosing the narrower path of holding that it simply does not apply in this case.