A Small Case with Big Ramifications

Harris-QuinnMy five-minute morning commute usually gives me just enough time to consider a few issues that might be cause for anxiety in the day ahead. But my typical worries were pushed aside last January by a news story I was listening to on NPR about a case the U.S. Supreme Court was then hearing called Harris v. Quinn, a case dealing with home health care workers in Illinois and their ability to unionize and collectively bargain. A decision on the case could be handed down any day now.

At first, I listened because it was a story about unions, a subject in which I am always interested. However, as I heard more, I became concerned. This case is not just about home health care workers in Illinois. It potentially has ramifications for all public sector workers across the country. This case, brought by the National Right to Work Committee, which has been linked to billionaire conservative mega-donors Charles and David Koch, could render a ruling that would impact all public sector unions, even in Ohio, in a manner similar to “Right to Work” legislation.

About 20,000 home-care providers in Illinois unionized about ten years ago, which has afforded them the right to bargain for benefits and working conditions. Since home-care providers have union representation, all must pay at least an agency fee, or “fair share,” since all workers are benefiting from the union’s ability to collectively bargain.

Within this group of 20,000 home-care workers, eight individuals filed suit against this fair-share arrangement, saying it violates their First Amendment rights. They contend that the union should not be the sole representative to voice their concerns and beliefs to the state.

The group of eight has already lost in both the federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In an unanimous decision, the Seventh Circuit decided that the issue was settled over 35 years ago by another case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which established the ability of public unions to have a sole representative. Because the unions are required by law to represent all employees in the bargaining unit, no employee is allowed a free-ride.

Yet, despite recommendations by government attorneys for the Supreme Court to bypass the case, the Justices granted review in October of last year. The question many Supreme Court watchers are asking is, why? There is concern that the majority of  Court Justices, who have conservative leanings, are “prepared to use Harris to overrule or limit Abood or worse, find “that the traditional system of ‘exclusive representation’ is unconstitutional.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Pose For Group PhotoThe decision the Court renders could impact many groups, depending upon the scope of its their ruling. Obviously, it will affect those 20,000 home care workers, but let’s not overlook the other group it may have an impact on, the patients. A compromised ability to collectively bargain could mean reduced wages and benefits for workers, and thus lead to less stable and reliable care for seniors and people with disabilities.

Often too, the home-care workers are family members. If the ruling impacts the ability for these workers to bargain for and earn a fair wage, they may have to seek other employment — and the seniors and people with disabilities who need care could be moved from their homes and placed in institutions.

Areesa Johnson, an Illinois home care worker says the current system benefits not only the workers, but the people for whom they care: “As more people see home care work as a way to provide for their own families, while also making a difference in the lives of other families, turnover goes down and the quality of care for our clients goes up.”

Beyond the boundaries of Illinois, this ruling could affect millions of union workers across the country. A ruling in favor of the eight plaintiffs could set precedent and jeopardize the ability of any union, anywhere, to collect agency fees. This ruling could do exactly what supporters of “Right to Work” laws want — diminish the ability of unions to collect dues and diminish unions’ capacity to bargain for workers, essentially implementing “Right to Work” throughout the country.

Over the next few days or months, I will be anxiously thinking about the case. I’ll be hoping for a favorable outcome for the home health care workers of Illinois, those who depend on their services, and all of us in public sector unions, who realize that our membership leads to better conditions for patients, students and the middle class, in general.

By Dan Greenberg, Sylvania Education Association

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