by Nicole G. Berner, Associate General Counsel, Service Employees International Union
In a narrowly divided opinion, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court in Harris v. Quinn ruled against homecare workers who provide crucial care to people with disabilities and the elderly and to the consumers who rely upon that care to live independently and with dignity in their homes. Harris v. Quinn was brought by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an extreme anti-worker group funded by the likes of the Koch brothers and the Walton family. The case is part of a broader concerted attack on working people and women in this country. Although the June 30 ruling is a setback for homecare workers, our members are more determined than ever to ensure quality care for people with disabilities and seniors, all of whom want nothing more than to enable this population to live independently and with dignity at home.
The petitioners asked the Court to disregard one of the bedrock principles of Supreme Court jurisprudence (stare decisis) and to overrule Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U. S. 209 (1977), a case relied on and reaffirmed in myriad cases since it was decided nearly four decades ago. In Abood, the Court held that a government entity may, consistent with the First Amendment, require public service employees to pay a fair share of the cost that a union incurs negotiating on their behalf for better terms of employment. While the Court declined the invitation to overrule Abood – a decision that would have radically restructured public sector labor relations in this country – the majority instead ruled that Abood’s protections do not extend to home care workers in the State of Illinois.
The Court’s narrow ruling leaves intact the right of most public service workers such as teachers, fire fighters, and police officers to join together in a union and to negotiate for fair share arrangements. The ruling also leaves intact the rights of the Illinois homecare workers to form a union and to bargain collectively through an exclusive bargaining representative. But the conservative five-justice majority carved out an exception to Abood for the tens of thousands of homecare workers in Illinois, thereby weakening the ability of this majority female workforce to advocate collectively for improved working conditions and quality care.