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And I'm Renee Montagne. The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today in a case that could have big implications for public employee unions. The high court will be considering whether states may recognize a union to represent private health care workers who assist the elderly and disabled in their homes rather than in state institutions.
NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: To understand why a growing number of states actually want to recognize a union to represent home health care workers, listen to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, talking about her state's Medicaid program for adults with disabilities.
LISA MADIGAN: The home services program has about 28,000 home care aides, and these people are working in homes all over the state. There isn't a centralized workplace, and the goal for the state here is creating and retaining a professional group of home care aides to meet the needs of what is an ever-increasing population of older people with disabilities. And we need to do that in a cost-effective manner.
TOTENBERG: Prior to the state recognizing the union in Illinois, turnover was huge, leaving large gaps in coverage for disabled adults. In the 10 years since unionization, though, wages have nearly doubled; from $7 to $13 an hour. Training and supervision has increased, and workers now have health insurance. It's not a surprise, then, that retention has greatly increased. What may surprise many is that the home care system is cheaper than nursing home care, with savings of $632 million, according to the state.
Nobody has to join the union, but non-union members - and there are three, in this case - do have to pay the costs of negotiating and administering the contract. Under long-established labor law, when a majority of workers vote to approve a union, those who do not join cannot be forced to pay for political activities of the union. But if the union is accepted by the public employer - as the service employees union was in Illinois - non-union members still have to pay their fair share of the expenses of negotiating a contract. That's to prevent non-members from free riding on the due of members.
For some workers, however, even that is too much. William Messenger, of the National Right to Work Committee, is their lawyer.
WILLIAM MESSENGER: They just don't want to deal with this organization whatsoever.
TOTENBERG: Or as Pam Harris, who cares for her son at home, puts it...
PAM HARRIS: I object to my home being a union workplace.
TOTENBERG: Harris, however, is part of a separate group of workers, most of whom care for family members at home. They voted down union representation. Her only claim in this case is that she fears there will be another vote.
Those who care for the bulk of disabled adults are quite different. Not only did they approve union representation, most care for people who are not relatives.
Those challenging the union representation have several claims. First, they say that the state is not their employer, since under this program, the individual patients - known as customers - hire and fire their own aides. The state replies that the aides are trained and supervised by the state, paid twice a month by the state, and that the state can fire them.
The objector's second claim is that the union is little more than a lobbying group. Again, Bill Messenger.
MESSENGER: Wages paid to government employees should be deemed a matter of public concern.
TOTENBERG: So, you're saying, in essence, because they're public employees, they can't have an effective union, because they're dealing with the government, and the government, per se, involves political issues.
MESSENGER: Yes, to a large degree, yes.
TOTENBERG: In other words, messenger views bargaining with the government for wages and health care as a political act.
MESSENGER: So I reject the notion that the SEIU somehow got higher reimbursement rates for them, and that can be a justification. Illinois could raise the reimbursement rates unilaterally.
PAUL SMITH: There's three people who are complaining, out of 27,000.
TOTENBERG: That's Paul Smith, the lawyer who will argue for the state and the union in the Supreme Court today.
SMITH: Not one of the plaintiffs has turned down the wages they've gotten as a result of the union negotiations, or even said there's anything that the union is trying to get for them that they don't approve of.
TOTENBERG: And Smith notes that no one here claims that any of the fair share money has gone for lobbying or political campaigning.
Still, Bill Messenger of the Right to Work Committee sees it differently.
MESSENGER: The question is: Can individuals be forced to support a union if they don't want to? And our position is no.
TOTENBERG: In the end, what makes this case remarkable is that the Supreme Court, for decades, has allowed public employee unions to operate as long as non-members are not forced to pay for political activities.
But the current conservative court has not been enamored of labor unions, hinting just two years ago that it might be time to revisit decades of doctrine on this issue. Paul Smith.
SMITH: If they say you can't have an exclusive representative union, that would be a stake in the heart, not just of unions in the public sector, but all unions.
TOTENBERG: And if the court were to say unions could not have a mandatory fair share contribution...
SMITH: You'd have a serious free rider problem. People have no incentive to pay their share of the costs if they can free ride on everybody else. So, this would substantially weaken unions.
TOTENBERG: A decision in the case is expected by summer. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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