Harris v. Quinn: Public Employees Union and the First Amendment
In Harris v. Quinn, 573 U.S. ___ (2014), the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the circumstances under which workers can be forced to join a union, pay dues and become public employees.
By a vote of 5-4, the justices concluded that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the collection of an agency fee from home healthcare providers who did not wish to join or support a union because they were not “full-fledged” public employees.
The Facts of the Case
Illinois’ Home Services Program (Rehabilitation Program) allows Medicaid recipients who would normally need institutional care to hire a “personal assistant” (PA) to provide homecare services. Under Illinois law, the homecare recipients dictate most aspects of the employment relationship, including the hiring, firing, training, supervising, and disciplining of the home healthcare providers. The state was deemed the legal employer by executive order, and later codified by the legislature, solely to permit PAs to join a labor union and engage in collective bargaining under Illinois’ Public Labor Relations Act (PLRA).
SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana (SEIU–HII) was designated the exclusive union representative for Rehabilitation Program employees. The union entered into collective-bargaining agreements with the State of Illinois that contained an agency-fee provision, which requires all bargaining unit members who do not wish to join the union to pay the union a fee for the cost of certain activities, including those tied to the collective-bargaining process. A group of Rehabilitation Program PAs filed a class action suit against SEIU–HII, alleging that the PLRA violated the First Amendment insofar as it authorized the agency-fee provision.
The District Court dismissed their claims, and Seventh Circuit affirmed. The appeals court held that the PAs were state employees within the meaning of Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed., 431 U. S. 209 (1977), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that public employees can be compelled to pay an agency service fee to cover their fair share of the costs of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment without running afoul of the Constitution.
The Court’s Decision
The majority held that the First Amendment prohibits the collection of an agency fee from providers who do not want to join or support the union. Justice Samuel Alito, Jr. authored the majority opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas.
In his opinion, Justice Alito characterized the Abood decision as an “anomaly” that is based on shaky legal footing. While the Court did not expressly overrule Abood, Justice Alito made it clear that the justices may be willing to do so in future union challenges.
In reaching its decision, the majority made a distinction between “full-fledged” public workers and what it termed “partial public employees.” Using this framework, the Court found that the Abood precedent did not extend to the plaintiffs because are “quite different from full-fledged public employees.” As Justice Alito highlighted, they are hired by individual patients, perform their services in private homes, and do not enjoy most of the rights and benefits bestowed on state employees.
In further support of the majority decision, Justice Alito pointed to a “bedrock principle that, except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”
Because Abood did not control, the Court turned to generally applicable First Amendment standards under which the rule at issue must serve a compelling state interest that cannot be achieved through less restrictive means. According to the majority, none of the interests that the state asserted were furthered by the agency-fee provision was sufficient.
Justice Elena Kagan filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor joined. Justice Kagan criticized the majority for undermining the legitimacy of the precedent established in Abood, noting that it serves as “the foundation for not tens or hundreds, but thousands of contracts between unions and governments across the nation.”
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Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.