July 1, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
New York — Local and national unions reacted angrily to the June 30th Supreme Court decision exempting some home health-care aides from having to pay fees to the unions that represent them. However, they also noted that the 5-4 decision in Harris v. Quinn was limited to a relatively small group of workers defined as “partial public employees” and thus not the devastating blow to public-sector unions that it could have been.
“No court case is going to stand in the way of home-care workers coming together to have a strong voice for good jobs and quality home care,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry responded in a statement. “At a time when wages remain stagnant and income inequality is out of control, joining together in a union is the only proven way home-care workers have of improving their lives and the lives of the people they care for.”
The SEIU, which represents about 400,000 home-health and child-care providers, including 26,000 in Illinois, said the decision “places at risk a system of consumer-directed home care that has proved successful in raising wages, providing affordable care, and increasing training,” and that with the need for such care growing, “having a strong union for care providers is the approach that has proven most effective” for building a stable, qualified workforce. How many of those members will be affected? “That’s what we’re trying to figure out right now,” said a union spokesperson.
The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, which represents more than 200,000 home-health and child-care providers, used identical language in its response. President Lee Saunders noted that the decision did not revoke collective bargaining rights or eliminate existing contracts for public-service workers or care providers, which he said “would have been a fundamental gutting of the American Dream.”
AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka issued a statement denouncing the Court’s “extreme views.” He called the decision “part of an onslaught from anti-worker organizations hostile to raising wages or improving benefits for millions of people” that is “a direct cause of an economy in which middle-class families can’t get a break because their wages have stagnated and their incomes have declined.”
“This is classic Supreme Court positioning to invite further litigation to weaken workers’ rights,” said Scott Sommer, a lawyer who is subregional direction for the United Auto Workers’ Region 9A in New York, adding that the opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito went “to great lengths to create a fiction about a ‘partial public employee.’” He compared the decision to the Court’s rulings onabortion: When the right-wing bloc can’t command a majority to overturn a major precedent such as Roe v. Wade, it issues decisions “whittling away” at the rights it defined.
New York-based unions, however, say the decision is not likely to affect many members here. United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew called it “a narrowly drawn response to a particular situation in Illinois,”while Danny Donohue, president of the Civil Service Employees Association, said it “does not have significant, obvious impact on CSEA-represented public employees and others in New York State.” A spokesperson for Local 1199 SEIU said it might affect some members in Massachusetts.
New York State United Teachers President Karen E. Magee noted that fair-share arrangements, in which nonmembers pay fees for union representation, “have served for decades as a common-sense solution that ensures that every worker who enjoys the benefits and protections of a labor contract contributes something toward maintaining it.” But she added that while the ruling largely left those intact, it “leaves little doubt that war is being waged against the middle class. Front groups funded by the wealthy elite are spending millions to strip away any power or voice that workers have on the job.”