Home Healthcare Worker Case Could Stunt Unions' Effort to Collect Forced Dues

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court heard an oral argument last week on a case that could have huge implications for unions and compulsory unionization among government workers in some states.

The case, brought by Pamela Harris and seven other workers who provide home-based assistance to patients in Illinois under two state programs, challenges the states’ authority to force workers to pay union dues.

Some of the eight plaintiffs are covered by an agreement between a public union and the state of Illinois that forces them to pay union dues even though they do not belong to the union. Others belong to a separate group of home-based healthcare providers that have so far voted against unionization.

The state of Illinois subsidizes the costs of homecare services offered to qualifying participants under two programs: the Disabilities Program and the Rehabilitation Program. Under these two programs, disabled participants or their guardians are responsible for developing plans of care, and hiring and supervising their caregivers.

Harris receives a $2,100 monthly stipend from the Disabilities Program to offset the cost of caring for her son Josh, who suffers from a rare genetic syndrome that has left him intellectually disabled and unable to control his body.

Under Illinois law, the state may compel home-based healthcare workers to pay a fee to cover their share of collective bargaining costs. This includes people who take care of disabled relatives, like Harris, and who do not want to belong to a union.

In 2003, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich issued an executive order classifying home-based workers under the Rehabilitation Program as public employees, but only for collective-bargaining purposes. A few months after coming into office, Blagojevich designated the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of his main backers, as the collective bargaining representative of homecare workers under this program.

Current Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed in 2009 a nearly identical executive order that targeted service providers, known as personal assistants, under the Disabilities Program. The mandate directed the state to recognize an exclusive representative for the program’s personal assistants.

Providers under the Disabilities Program, however, defeated the efforts of SEIU and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees to become their exclusive representative through a mail-in ballot in October 2009. The executive order remains in effect, however, so the state could designate another union to act as their exclusive representative.

In 2010, Harris and the other plaintiffs sued Quinn and the unions and claimed that their “fair share” fees violated their freedom of speech and freedom of association rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

A district court dismissed the case, citing long-standing Supreme Court precedent that mandatory union dues can be collected to support non-political activities. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago affirmed that ruling and concluded that these home-based healthcare workers were employed by the state of Illinois.

In October 2013, the Supreme Court decided to take the case.

The Supreme Court has historically upheld the compulsory unionization of state employees. In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the highest court determined that mandatory representation promotes the state’s interest in maintaining “labor peace” among its workforce. This means that the government, just like any private employer, could require dues payments to prevent employees from “free riding” on union representation.

The Supreme Court, however, has drawn a line to protect workers' First Amendment rights. Workers can be compelled to pay dues that go to collective bargaining for wages and benefits, so long as those that object to pay the portion of those fees going to ideological activities are allowed to opt out.