After much anticipation, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on Wednesday issued its decision in Janus v. AFSCME, ruling along party lines that public employees do not have to pay union fees to help cover the costs of collective bargaining. A previous ruling related to home care workers in Illinois helped pave the way.
The court’s controversial decision overturns a four-decades-old precedent and effectively transforms the public sector into a “right-to-work” zone, striking a harsh blow to unions by potentially weakening their financial livelihoods and membership base going forward. In the immediate aftermath of the 5-4 SCOTUS ruling, public-sector employees will no longer have to pay fees or dues to unions, even if those unions are collectively bargaining on their behalf for better wages or benefits.
Prior to the decision, states were largely split on the point, with 28 right-to-work states prohibiting agreements between employers and labor unions that govern the extent to which a union can require membership dues or fees as an employment condition.
“The arrangement violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority decision.
Unions for home care workers have already been operating under such circumstances for more than two years.
In the 2014 Harris v. Quinn case, the Supreme Court ruled that Illinois home care workers cannot be forced to financially support a union they did not wish to join, largely due to the complex employment relationship between the person receiving care and the person providing it. The decision, also split 5-4, resolved a lawsuit filed by personal care assistant Pamela Harris against former Gov. Pat Quinn and a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
The decision initially raised concerns about the ability of SEIU and other unions to prosper and stay relevant, though many labor groups have continued to flourish.
“Home care workers went through the same attack,” Melody Benjamin—a home care personal assistant in Chicago and member of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas—told Home Health Care News. “It was a big hit.”
Despite having its ability to collect dues limited, the union group has remained strong and persisted in advocating on behalf of its laborers, Benjamin said. In many ways, she said, the Harris v. Quinn decision galvanized the union and its members, leading to a greater focus on grassroots efforts and door-to-door outreach. As a result, attendance at SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas’ membership meetings has grown from a handful of attendees prior to 2014 to “standing room only,” a spokesperson told HHCN.
“We came back strong,” Benjamin said.
Other union groups—including United Domestic Workers of America (UDW), which represents roughly 100,000 home care workers in California as part of the sate’s In-Home Supportive Services program—have also touted their standing in the wake of the landmark rulings.
“UDW has doubled down on what really matters: protecting the home care program for seniors and people with disabilities, and helping to build better lives for caregivers and working people in our communities,” UDW Executive Director Doug Moore told HHCN in an email. “We are not only surviving in a right-to-work environment, we are thriving.”
Since the Harris v. Quinn ruling, UDW has signed up nearly 30,000 additional members, he said.
From an economic standpoint, the Janus decision presents the largest change to collective bargaining rights in the United States in decades, according to a study by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Robert Bruno. By overturning the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education case, wages of state and local government employees may decrease by an average of 3.6%, resulting in a $1,810 loss in wage and salary income per worker.
Written by Robert Holly