Does a public union belong in the most private of workplaces? Thousands of personal care workers in Illinois who tend to elders and people with disabilities at home wouldn’t have it any other way. For years, they’ve relied on the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to negotiate their contracts. But a radical anti-union movement has gone to the Supreme Court to challenge care providers’ right to organize—putting hard-won labor gains in serious danger.
The case now before the court, Harris v. Quinn, started with a class-action lawsuit filed in 2010 by several care providers in a state Medicaid-financed program for people with disabilities. The plaintiffs argue that their automatic incorporation into a public sector union—with the requirement to pay dues—violates their free speech and free association rights.
The litigation, which lost first in a federal district court and later in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, stems from the political agenda of the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, whose representatives are arguing on behalf of the plaintiffs. In the past, the group has led campaigns in various states to push “right to work” legislation that undermines the dues obligations unions rely on to finance their operations. This time, it’s attempting through the judiciary system to weaken the collective bargaining authority of public-sector unions.
In 1977, a Supreme Court decision mandated that unions named as the bargaining agent for a group of workers must represent all of them. In turn, those who benefit from unions’ negotiations with employers must pay their “fair share” of the cost in the form of dues. If the Defense Foundation’s challenge succeeds, it could nationally damage this “fair share” precedent, thereby eviscerating unions’ financial resources. And on a statewide level, home care workers would be left with less protection in the workplace and less leverage to negotiate as a group.
The workers at the heart of Harris are an unusual group of public servants: They’re based in private homes as hands-on caregivers, yet they’re supported by taxpayer dollars. As state employees, they also enjoy working conditions that are a cut above a home healthcare typically industry characterized by low wages, high turnover and sparse benefits. Unlike many nannies, housekeepers and privately employed home aides, some 20,000 SEIU-represented workers have a steady contract with the state of Illinois. And during the past decade, SEIU has enabled its care providers to gain access to professional training, a new healthcare fund and a 65 percent wage hike.
But Flora Johnson, a home care provider and chair of SEIU Healthcare Illinois’s Executive Board, testified recently that a Legal Defense Foundation victory could threaten those advancements.