While the Twitterverse remains obsessed with the US Supreme Court’s awful ruling in the Hobby Lobby case—that closely held corporations can exempt themselves from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception requirements on religious grounds—a potentially more impactful decision isn’t getting nearly as much attention.
Again, by 5-4 vote split purely on ideological grounds, the court has ruled that home health care workers in Illinois have a First Amendment right to refuse to pay “agency fees” (you know, dues) to the union that represents them. There is little analysis so far online, and I haven’t had time to more than skim the decision, let alone wrap my mind around it, but the conclusion of Justice Elana Kagan’s dissenting opinion (pdf) is probably instructive:
For many decades, Americans have debated the pros and cons of right-to-work laws and fair-share requirements. All across the country and continuing to the present day, citizens have engaged in passionate argument about the issue and have made disparate policy choices. The petitioners in this case asked this Court to end that discussion for the entire public sector, by overruling Abood and thus imposing a right-to-work regime for all government employees. The good news out of this case is clear: The majority declined that radical request. The Court did not, as the petitioners wanted, deprive every state and local government, in the management of their employees and programs, of the tool that many have thought neces- sary and appropriate to make collective bargaining work.
The bad news is just as simple: The majority robbed Illinois of that choice in administering its in-home care program.
Just like in Hobby Lobby, newspaper ledes will likely describe Harris v. Quinn as a “narrow” opinion. It did not overturn Abood, and thus apparently did not drive the final nail into the coffin of organized labor by extending “right to work” rules to all public employee unions. But it also did not extend Abood’s protections to home health care workers in Illinois. And that could potentially have an enormous political impact here in Washington State.
By far the most influential and successful union in Washington in recent years has been SEIU Healthcare 775NW, which organized and represents the state’s 40,000 in-home health care workers. It was SEIU 775 that largely funded the organizing efforts behind Seattle’s fast food strikes and SeaTac’s $15 minimum wage initiative. It was SEIU 775 president David Rolf who co-chaired the mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, and played a major role in pushing through our new minimum wage law. Other locals may grumble at the assertion, but it is fair to say that SEIU 775 has been the most powerful and effective union in the state.
But if the court’s ruling in Harris v. Quinn extends to Washington State, then SEIU 775 may have just been largely defunded, and the state’s in-home health care workers left without effective representation.
Because that’s how “right to work” works. If workers are given the right to opt out of paying union dues, narrow self-interest dictates that many of them will become freeloaders, benefitting from union contracts without bearing any of the cost of negotiating them. I mean, if you’re struggling to make ends meet on $12 an hour, what are you going to pay first—your electric bill or your union dues? And without the majority of the workers paying their dues, unions wither away into political insignificance, lacking the funds to effectively organize, advertise, or make political contributions. As the union grows politically weaker, its ability to collectively bargain on behalf of its members weakens too. And as the union becomes a less effective negotiator, fewer and fewer members choose to pay their dues.
It is that sort of death spiral that has made it nearly impossible to unionize in “right to work” states.
I’ve asked SEIU 775 for comment and was told that they are still “analyzing the decision.”
Maybe organized labor largely dodged a bullet in Harris v. Quinn. This time. Maybe. But clearly some of our nation’s lowest paid and most vulnerable workers did not. And if this ruling applies to in-home health care workers in Washington the same way it applies to in-home health care workers in Illinois, then it may end up having an enormous impact on local politics, largely defunding what has been the most powerful and effective union in the state.
UPDATE: SEIU 775 spokesperson Jackson Holtz offers the following defiant response: “Home health care workers in Washington will continue to stand with low wage workers throughout the state and around the country in our fight to lift workers out of poverty. Today’s Supreme Court decision will in no way change that.”
Holtz emphasizes that this is “a long and complicated opinion,” and that Washington’s in-home health care system is very, very different from the program and Illinois. “We have a far more robust collective bargaining model through which workers have won benefits,” says Holtz, like health insurance, mandatory training, and certification, as opposed to just wages. “The distinctions between the two programs are too innumerable to go through.”
In other words, their lawyers are still trying to figure out what this all means.
One thing that seems certain is that today’s ruling will surely spark similar lawsuits here in Washington State, attempting to widen the crack provided by Justice Alito’s opinion in an effort to further erode the few legal protections still afforded organized labor.