The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision makes it tempting to see its narrow ruling in Harris v. Quinn‘s as a minor victory on a bad day, but the case that threatened to destroy public unions is as clear an example as any that this is why you must always vote. In a 5-4 decision on Monday, the court ruled in favor of home health care workers who didn’t want to pay dues to a public union that they weren’t members of. However, the ruling was sufficiently narrow to preserve the right of public unions to collect dues from other types of non-members. The court could have extended its ruling to any public employee who objects to a union’s activities, but it didn’t, so that’s kind of a win, right?
Not exactly, since the existence of public sector unions wasn’t supposed to have been at issue in the first place. From SCOTUSBlog:
This seemed an unlikely case to even raise that issue, but raise it, it surely did. The case only involves home-care workers who provide medical services for patients one on one, and the prospect that their activities might pose a threat to labor peace appeared remote indeed. Several members of the Court, though, were insistent that this case raises very large issues about labor relations in the public sector — an issue that is stirring up a good deal of agitation around the country, especially in state and local government.
Aside from what was said explicitly from the bench, the atmospherics of [the] argument suggested strongly that this case has very large potential. The mood of the Court’s more liberal members was one of obvious trepidation, and that of its more conservative members — except for Justice Scalia — was of apparent eagerness to reach anew the core constitutionality of compulsory union support among public workers.
The argument that threatened the existence of public unions was the notion that public union activities are necessarily issues of “public concern,” and the collection of dues from anyone constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. Instead, the court relied mainly on the differences between the private home care providers and full public employees.
Along the way, though, the court’s conservative members provided a road map to future challenges to public unionization, essentially saying that this just isn’t the right case for that kind of ruling. They identified weaknesses in the precedents that public union protections rely on. Opponents of public sector unions, and unions in general, now need only cast about for the right plaintiff, and if all goes well for them in 2016, the right future Supreme Court nominees.
This is yet another reminder of why it’s important to vote. No matter how tempting it is to succumb to the emoprog notion that there’s essentially no difference between the two parties, or the mainstream media “a pox on both your houses” narrative, this past week’s Supreme Court decisions demonstrate that elections have consequences that can be delivered in an instant. Whatever protection you thought you had can be ripped away with the stroke of a pen, and the only way to fix that is to have people looking out for your interests in the other branches of government.
Update: The White House released the following statement at 2:20 pm, via email:
Statement by the Press Secretary on Harris v. Quinn
Collective bargaining is a fundamental right that helped build America’s middle class. The ability of public servants to collectively bargain is crucial to ensuring both a fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work and the high quality service citizens expect and deserve from their government.
For almost 40 years, the Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment allows state and local governments to require employees to pay a fair share of a union’s expenses for representing that worker. We are disappointed that the Supreme Court has carved out a group of workers – homecare workers who provide critical support to the elderly and people with disabilities in their own homes.
The collective bargaining model in Illinois resulted in fairer pay and benefits for hardworking caregivers as well as improved training, safety and health protections, and tools to help those who need care to find it. The Court’s decision will not only make it significantly harder for these dedicated employees to get a fair shake in exchange for their hard work, but will make it harder for states and cities to ensure the elderly and Americans with disabilities get the care they need and deserve.
The Administration remains committed to defending collective bargaining rights.