Supreme Court Deals A Blow To Unions, But It's Not Quite Mortal

By a 5-4 majority along ideological lines, the Supreme Court has ruled that Illinois can't compel home health aides to pay union dues because it violates the First Amendment. The ruling is a defeat for unions, but it falls short of the kind of sweeping denunciation that could have derailed unions' fundraising and organizing efforts.

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Two big decisions on the last day of the Supreme Court's term today. In one, the justices limited the mandate for insurance coverage of contraception in the new healthcare law. We'll have more on that elsewhere on the program. Also the Court handed a defeat to public employee unions, ruling that home care aides in Illinois may not be forced to pay fees to support collective bargaining. Still, the 5 to 4 decision, along ideological lines, could have been even worse for big labor. The High Court, for now at least, has refused to overturn a nearly 40-year-old precedent that might have put many public employee unions out of business. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Eight home care workers in Illinois brought this lawsuit. They said the state violated their free-speech rights when it required them to pay fees for Service Employees International Union. The SEIU negotiates contracts that have led to higher pay and benefits for all home care aides in this state and some others, whether they join the union or not. And in return, the union asks the aides to pay their fair share of the fees for those negotiations. But William Messenger of the National Right to Work Foundation says several aides object to that idea.

WILLIAM MESSENGER: What the State of Illinois is effectively doing is forcing these home health care providers to financially support the SEIU for purposes of speaking to the state about its Medicaid program. In fact, the SEIU a compulsory lobbyist for these Medicaid providers and that, of course, is compelled association and also compelled speech.

JOHNSON: Today, five Supreme Court justices, led by Samuel Alito, agreed with that reasoning. The court majority said that First Amendment bars unions from collecting fees from home aides who don't want to join the union. The decision affects nearly 26,000 aides in Illinois. And according to business groups, it could up end similar programs in18 other states. Mary Kay Henry leads the SEIU.

MARY KAY HENRY: Our focus today is on the home care providers in Illinois who have raised their wages from $6 an hour, 10 years ago, to $13 an hour today, who are providing stable, loving, qualified care giving to seniors and the disabled.

JOHNSON: The top lawyer in Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said the arrangement the Supreme Court struck down today has also made life easier for the state. Madigan says Illinois saved more than $600 million by paying aides to help disabled people stay in their homes, rather than sending them and the Medicaid funds for their care to institutions.

LISA MADIGAN: In our experience, allowing home health care workers to have an exclusive bargaining representative has proven to reduce turnover, enhance stability and improve working conditions.

JOHNSON: Madigan says she'll work with the SEIU to find a way forward. The union continues to represent home care aides in Illinois. But because of the Supreme Court decision, aides can now receive the benefits from the union contract without paying fees or dues. William Gould teaches labor law at Stanford University.

WILLIAM GOULD: There's every incentive not to pay dues to the union, when you can get the same thing as the fellows who do pay fees to the union.

JOHNSON: Still, Justice Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, didn't go quite as far as National Right to Work Foundation had asked. The Supreme Court did not overturn a landmark decision in the 1977 Abood case, which would have cast all public employee unions' fees in doubt. Instead, Alito said the home care aides in Illinois were not true public employees because the disabled people they care for set many other terms of their employment jointly with the state. Alito went out of his way to cast doubt on the 1977 case, in language that dissenting Justice Elena Kagan called gratuitous and off-base. Kagan and three other justices said the Abood precedent had been firmly established for decades. But now, Professor Gould says, the ground is shaking.

GOULD: The handwriting is indeed on the wall. And the public sector unions face a very daunting task in sending off future adverse rulings.

JOHNSON: Gould says there are already several other cases in lower courts that could invite a majority of the Supreme Court to do just that. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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