Harris v Quinn: “the relentless attack” on workers’ rights continues


This Monday, the United States Supreme Court dealt a major setback to the unions representing workers who take care of sick or disabled people in their homes.

By a narrow majority of 5-4, in Harris v Quinn the Court decided that unions should not require workers to pay a fee for representing them in negotiating higher wages and better conditions.

Unions had feared a much broader decision that might have ended bargaining rights for all workers in the public sector.

But the court’s more limited ruling did not extend that far – at least for now.

“Today’s ruling did not hand anti-worker extremists the victory they’d been hoping for,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

“It did not eliminate existing contracts ... but make no mistake – Justice Alito’s opinion made clear that the relentless assault on workers’ rights will not abate.”

The decision arose from a case filed in 2010 by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation on behalf of nine homecare workers in the state of Illinois.

Throughout the US, hundreds of thousands of workers work every year care for sick and disabled people in their homes.

Those individuals, or members of their families, hire the workers. The money to pay their wages comes from the government, mostly from the federal Medicaid programme.

In the first years of the last decade, public sector unions in Illinois convinced the state to set up a public body that would act as the employer of homecare workers in determining wages and benefits.

This same process was followed in recent years in nine other states, including California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

In 2003, approximately 26,000 workers in Illinois were then able to vote for union representation by the Service Employees International Union; in other states, similar votes gave representation status to AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers.

SEIU then negotiated a contract.

“Before we formed our union, I made less than $6 an hour, but by uniting we are set to make $13 an hour by the end of the year,” said Chicago homecare worker Flora Johnson in a statement.

Under a previous Supreme Court decision in 1977, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, unions in the public sector can charge a fee to pay the cost of representing workers, including workers who are not members and don’t pay union dues.

The Right to Work Fund suit sought to eliminate the payment requirement for all public sector workers.

Unions feared that this would serve as a pretext for a sweeping national roll back of public sector bargaining rights.


Notoriously anti-union

It was clear in the majority opinion written by notoriously anti-union Justice Samuel Alito that this would have been his preferred outcome.

He said paying such a fee violated the prohibition by the US Constitution’s First Amendment on restricting freedom of speech, because it forced an anti-union worker to give money to a union.

Judge Elena Kagan vocalised the minority’s dissent when she said: “Workforce shortages and high turnover have long plagued in-home care programs, principally because of low wages and benefits.

“That labor instability lessens the quality of care which in turn forces disabled persons into institutions and increases costs to the state.”

In the face of Alito and the four conservatives, SEIU was defiant.

“No court case is going to stand in the way of home care workers coming together to have a strong voice for good jobs and quality home care,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was equally defiant: "Make no mistake: the fate of workers cannot and will not be decided by one Supreme Court decision,” he warned.

The decision was aimed at sections of the workforce in the US where unions have been growing.

Homecare workers are mostly women of colour, and have worked at the lowest possible wages for decades. As a result, they have been very open to the idea of unionisation.

That is also true for other groups of contingent workers who don’t have traditional relationships with large employers.

At its 2013 convention in Los Angeles, the AFL-CIO made a commitment to work more closely with worker centres in this part of the workforce.

Employer groups have been increasingly hostile to rising union activity among low wage and contingent workers.

This Supreme Court decision reflects that hostility, and puts new obstacles in the way of their efforts to organise and change their economic status.