In a split decision, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that under the First Amendment, private health care contractors are not obligated to pay public sector union dues even if they are paid by public health care programs.
The 5 to 4 decision does not eviscerate the "fair share" fees that public unions collect from all public sector workers, regardless of whether they are in the union or not. However, it does cut off public unions from tapping into the growing market of private contractors who work in public health care systems.
Monday's decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, pertained to Illinois home-care workers who refused to pay "fair share" fees to a union for the cost of representation.
Currently, public sector unions must bargain on behalf of all workers, whether those workers have joined the union or not. The unions collect dues from members, but they are also allowed to collect "fair share" fees from non-union workers to compensate for the cost of negotiating on their behalf. The "fair share" fees cannot pay for any political activity. Revoking the right to collect "fair share" fees would have been devastating for public unions -- if that were to happen, workers could simply reap the benefits of the union system without contributing to it.
The ruling affects a very narrow group of employees who recieve compensation from Medicaid disbursements. But it leaves the door open for a broader ruling involving other private workers later.
It remains possible that in a later case the Court will overturn its prior precedent and forbid requiring public employees to contribute to union bargaining. But today it has refused to go that far. The unions have lost a tool to expand their reach. But they have dodged a major challenge to their very existence.