The Supreme Court Monday sided with home health care workers in Illinois who want out of a union. But it stopped short of a sweeping decision that could have decimated union finances and membership, AP reports.
In Harris v. Quinn, the justices declined to reverse a precedent, set in 1977, that held states could compel public-sector employees to pay union dues. Laws mandating such payments exist in 26 states and will remain intact, in a major victory for organized labor.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a 5-4 majority, called the precedent "questionable," signaling an openness to revisit it in future cases.
The issue at hand in Harris v. Quinn involves Pamela Harris, a home care worker in Illinois who takes care of her disabled son. Harris is among home care workers who have decided not to unionize through SEIU, opting instead to bargain directly with the Medicaid recipients who decide how much money to allocate to their caregivers.
The case posed a challenge to so-called "fair play fees," which allow unions to collect dues from employees who aren't in the union but who still benefit from the bargains unions strike with employers.
In the case of public-sector unions, though, the employer is the government. And for that reason, the challengers in Harris argued, the unions' collective bargaining is inherently a political activity - they're essentially lobbying the government.
The challengers said allowing public-sector unions to collect fair-play fees is therefore requiring non-union employees to support political activities they don't necessarily agree with - a violation of their First Amendment rights.
Public sector unions have suffered many setbacks over the past few years - right-to-work laws in states like Michigan and Indiana have drastically limited unions' ability to require members to pay dues. And in 2011 Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker set off a political firestorm when he stripped state workers of their right to bargain collectively.