SCOTUS to decide most important labor case in decades this week
The Supreme Court is set to deal a huge blow to SEIU and other public unions in a case that looks at the issue of whether private contractors have to pay union dues.
The case was brought by Pamela Harris, who receives money from the state of Illinois to take care of her son.
Workers like Harris were once seen as independent contractors, but Illinois’s legislature in 2003 passed a law deeming them public employees. This forced people like Harris to have fees from their Medicare checks withheld as payment to the SEIU, which had the responsibility of representing all workers who were subject to the 2003 law.
Harris and others are arguing this represents a violation of their free speech. They say the state law compelled them to be represented by a union and to pay fees.
“That's a huge injustice to force people to pay dues to a union that they want nothing to do with,” said Patrick Semmens, spokesman for the National Right to Work (NRTW) Legal Defense Fund.
A ruling that just affects the Illinois home workers might have a modest impact on labor law, but a broader ruling that prevents public sector unions from collecting dues from non-members could take millions of dollars out of their coffers.
“We're concerned, but it's certainly not going to stop workers from coming together with their unions and fighting to improve their jobs and the quality of public services,” said Judy Scott, general counsel at SEIU, which is a defendant in the case.
Eisenbrey argues the case is part of an effort by big business to further weaken unions.
“It's part of a corporate campaign to weaken or kill unions wherever they can, however they can,” Eisenbrey said. “It's a complete attack on all of the improvements in labor standards that have been made over the last 50, 60 years.”
Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia could prove to be the swing vote, experts say.
In a 1991 Supreme Court case, Scalia argued it is reasonable for unions to collect fees from non-union members to cover their negotiating costs. Then, during oral arguments for Harris vs. Quinn in January, Scalia's questions led some believe he is leaning in this direction once again.
Eisenbrey called Scalia “the hope.”
“In this case, Scalia may actually end up being a swing vote who actually sides with the more liberal members of the court and, of course, workers,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP).
The key here is how broad the Supreme Court wants to draw the lines. A sweeping ruling that affects workers all over the country may not have a consensus - even among conservatives. But a narrowly based ruling that grants relief to some home health workers may pull some liberals on the court into a majority opinion.
That the SEIU negotiates for these home health workers may be the next line of attack. Clearly, the change in 2003 in Illinois was designed to grant more power to the SEIU in negotiations with the taxpayer - a law that has since been copied in many states. The alternative is some kind of labor board that is independent of politics and would set wage rates and benefits for all state workers.
It looks like it will be another defeat for SEIU and its union allies.