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Harris v. Quinn: Wake up call for labor

Commentary by Cherrene Horazuk |
July 1, 2014
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Minneapolis, MN - The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 today in Harris vs. Quinn that home health care workers who are paid through Medicaid and state funding are not “full-fledged public employees”. Therefore, the Court reasons, home health care workers need not provide financial support to a union that represents them and bargains on their behalf.

Home care workers are a growing segment of public sector unions and are the focus of many current organizing drives for both AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) and SEIU (Service Employees International Union. The care providers are sometimes state agency employees, but are frequently relatives or friends of people with disabilities or the elderly, who provide care and ensure their family member is not placed in a much more costly nursing home. The vast majority of home care providers are women, and unionization helps to bring their wages up out of extreme poverty levels.

The Court ruling created a new category of “quasi-public” employee. The judges stated that because home health care workers can be hired or fired by the person they care for, even though their wages, benefits and other terms of work are bargained collectively with the state, they are not full-fledged public workers. The court ruled that fair share fees could not be collected from non-members in these “quasi-public” positions. The 5-4 ruling along ideological lines narrowly focused on the nature of home care workers, but opens the door for future attacks on public sector unions as a whole.

Many labor pundits were concerned that the conservative-dominated court would overturn the 1977 decision, Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education, which gives a public sector union the right to collect “fair share” fees from all workers represented under the contract, and expressed some relief that Abood still stands, for now.

However, as Joe Burns, labor lawyer and author of the book, Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor’s Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today, states, “Public employee unions must not get complacent because of a perceived victory here. The majority is clearly using this case to set up a future case overturning the Abood decision and imposing a so-called "right to work" scheme upon public employees.”

Burns continued, “Because the Supreme Court is one of the most undemocratic institutions in society, they typically prefer to avoid sharp turns in policy and instead, like here, favor chipping away at rights. If they move too quickly, they expose themselves for what they are, a highly politicized un-elected, elite handful of millionaires making decisions which directly impact millions of Americans.”

Harris vs. Quinn is just the most recent in a series of court cases aimed at breaking unions and is part of a concerted effort carried out in the courts, state legislatures, and federal government level to attack workers and defund unions (both public and private sector) by taking away a union’s ability to collect dues. These anti-union efforts succeeded in Wisconsin, where public sector unions lost at least 40% of their dues-paying membership since Governor Scott Walker destroyed collective bargaining for public employees. Across the lake in Michigan, home of the sit-down strike, unions lost power and “Right to Work” is now the law of the land. Though today’s Court upheld Abood, in writing for the majority, Justice Alito made it clear that public sector unions are on the chopping block.

The Harris vs. Quinn decision should serve as a wake up call for the labor movement. The laws and courts cannot be counted on to defend the rights of working people and our unions. Unions gained legal recognition in the first place by organizing, going on strike and by breaking unjust laws. We must build a labor movement that is willing to once again fight for our rights. As Allison Brimeyer, clerical worker at the University of MN and member of AFSCME 3800’s Clerical Assembly stated, “We don't rely on the corporate Supreme Court to confirm and establish our human rights as workers; we tell them what our rights are by demanding and fighting for them every day.”

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