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Supreme Court limits rights of home care workers to unionize

Stephon Johnson | 7/3/2014, 1:57 p.m.
Florida's nursing home caregivers became the first union contract in the state of Florida that includes safe staffing requirements in 2011

A Supreme Court case that didn’t involve Hobby Lobby made it under the radar on Monday despite its importance to union and public sector employees.

In a 5-4 vote, Supreme Court justices ruled in the Harris v. Quinn case that home health care workers in Illinois aren’t compelled to financially support unions they don’t want to join. It’s a partial victory for organized labor, which feared the decision would be broader, but that doesn’t mean unions, particularly local unions, are satisfied with the result.

“When it comes to the rights of workers, voters and citizens, the Roberts court is always on the wrong side,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers. “While we deplore the decision in Harris v. Quinn, it is a narrowly drawn response to a particular situation in Illinois. Given its specific nature, we are reviewing whether it has any substantial applicability to New York state or city.”

Illinois is one of 26 states that require public sector employees to pay partial dues to unions that negotiate their contracts and represent them in grievances. These are often known as “agency fees.”

Previously, the Supreme Court upheld the concept of agency fees based on the belief that everyone in the workplace benefitted from collectively bargained contracts—courtesy of unions—and those should provide at least some financial support.

Joan Entmacher, vice president for Family Economic Security at the National Women’s Law Center, wasn’t pleased with the court’s ruling.

“Unions have strengthened the rights and working conditions of home care workers and child care providers—two poorly paid and overwhelmingly female groups of workers,” said Entmacher in a statement. “Through unionization, these workers have secured better pay, training and working conditions for themselves, and the seniors, people with disabilities and children who rely on these workers benefit from a more stable and qualified workforce.

“Today’s ruling wrongly limits these workers’ ability to organize and suggests an even more ominous future: The majority questioned, but did not overturn, a decades-old precedent protecting the organizing rights of nurses, firefighters, teachers, police officers, emergency responders and other workers who provide vital public services—the majority of whom are women.”

Katrina Gamble, of the Center for Popular Democracy Director of Civic Engagement and Politics, echoed those sentiments.

“As America’s population ages, it is critical that we pursue strategies to help people age with dignity in their homes when feasible,” said Gamble in a statement.” A key component of this approach is ensuring that the expansion of the home care workforce enjoy livable wages, decent benefits, job training and support, and stability of employment.

“The Supreme Court in Harris v. Quinn struck a blow against this model, going back on decades of settled case law and making it more difficult for home care workers to come together with their clients to bargain for improved working conditions and wages from the state.”

But not all are crying about the results. “Right-to-work” groups have claimed victory.

“This scheme, which forced parents and other relatives taking care of persons with disabilities into union political association, was a slap in the face of fundamental American principles we hold dear,” said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation. “We applaud these home care providers’ effort to convince the Supreme Court to strike down this constitutionally dubious scheme, thus freeing thousands of home care providers from unwanted union control.”