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Court limits how public unions can make nonmembers pay fees

June 30, 2014 at 6:23 PM EST
The Supreme Court delivered a setback to organized labor with a 5-4 decision on whether public sector home-health workers have to pay union dues. Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal analyzes the arguments and implications with Judy Woodruff.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as we said a moment ago, the Supreme Court also decided a case today that could have implications for the future of public sector labor unions.

The court found in another 5-4 decision that some public sector home health workers do not have to pay union dues. The court didn’t go as far as some conservatives wanted, but it did deliver a setback to organized labor.

And back with us again to talk about what the justices did, Marcia Coyle. You’re still here at the table.

Marcia, give us a little background on this case. What was the origin of the suit that was bought — brought?

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: There were eight Illinois home health care workers who filed a lawsuit challenging the so-called agency fees that they had to pay to the union that represented home health care workers.

Agency fees are charged non-union members in order help cover the costs of collective bargaining negotiations. The union cannot use the fees for any other reason, for example, to advocate a political position.

The non-union members wanted the court to overturn a 1977 decision which had upheld agency fees against a challenge based on the First Amendment, and the court back then said, yes, there’s a burden on free speech, but two reasons uphold these fees. One is labor peace, and the other is, you don’t want free riders. Why should non-union workers get the advantage of collective bargaining, but not contribute to the cost?

Well, today, in another 5-4 decision written by Justice Alito, the court refused to overturn that 1977 decision. Instead, it had a lot of negative comments about that decision, but it said that these particular home health care workers were not what he called full-fledged public employees. They weren’t like schoolteachers or police officers.

Their true employers were their customers, the people they cared for. They did get paid through the Medicaid program, but that was the only real connection to government. And so he felt and the majority felt that this wasn’t enough to overcome the burden on their free speech and association rights.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the upshot is that there are now limits — that unions will see some limits to what they can expect members, dues-paying members or, as you say, the agency fee to be paid to them.

MARCIA COYLE: Right.

There are about — half the states have what are known as right-to-work laws, where this probably won’t affect union — non-union members, but the other half of the states will probably have to examine the category of public employees they have to see if any are like the eight who challenged the Illinois requirement.

So the impact may be felt there. It was narrower decision than what unions feared. If the unions had suffered the full defeat and had that 1977 law — decision overturned, that would have been extremely damaging to their ability to unionize, as well as to do effective collective bargaining.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what was the dissent arguing in this case?

MARCIA COYLE: The dissent, which was written by Justice Kagan, said basically that 1977 decision settled the matter. There was no difference here. These were public employees, and the justification for the agency fees still existed and should have applied to these employees.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But I guess, coming out of this, what a lot of folks are going to be looking to and what you just referred to is whether unions are going to see this as clipping their wings.

(CROSSTALK)

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I think they probably felt some amount of relief, but it’s pretty clear that that 1977 decision is on life support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK.
Marcia Coyle, two big decisions from the court today, and this is the end of the term.

MARCIA COYLE: It is. That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Marcia, thank you very much.