Updated at 10:48 a.m. ET
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that some public employees cannot be required to contribute to unions.
In a 5-4 ruling split along ideological lines, the court recognized a category of "partial public employees" who cannot be required to contribute union bargaining fees. The court said the current practice, which permits automatic deductions, violates the First Amendment rights of those nonmembers who disagree with the union's positions.
As the folks over at ScotusBlog note: "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."
But, as The Associated Press points out: "The ruling is a setback for labor unions that have bolstered their ranks and bank accounts in Illinois and other states by signing up hundreds of thousands of in-home care workers. It could lead to an exodus of members who will have little incentive to pay dues if nonmembers don't have to share the burden of union costs."
The court's four liberal justices dissented.
In January, NPR's Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg explained what's at stake:
"At issue are two questions: whether states may recognize a union to represent health care workers who care for disabled adults in their homes instead of in state institutions; and whether nonunion members must pay for negotiating a contract they benefit from."
The decision affects some 26,000 workers who are paid with Medicaid funds administered by the state.
Monday's case involved Pamela Harris, an Illinois woman who cares for her son in her home. Under collective-bargaining rules, she was considered a home care worker, and thus an employee of the state. The Service Employees International Union, which represents home care workers in Illinois, automatically deducted Harris' fees from her paychecks. But she maintained that the automatic deduction was a violation of her First Amendment rights.
On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed.
"If we accepted Illinois' argument, we would approve an unprecedented violation of the 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," Justice Samuel Alito said in the majority opinion. "The First Amendment prohibits the collection of an agency fee from personal assistants in the Rehabilitation Program who do not want to join or support the union."
Prior to the Illinois recognizing unions to represent home health workers, there was huge worker turnover in the sector. This left a gap in coverage of disabled adults. As Nina reported:
"In the 10 years since unionization, however, wages have nearly doubled, from $7 to $13 an hour; training and supervision has increased, as well as standardization of qualifications, and workers now have health insurance.
"It's no surprise then that retention has greatly increased. What may surprise many is that this arrangement is cheaper, with savings of $632 million, according to the state."
But Harris was part of a smaller group of workers, most of whom care for family members at home. Those workers had rejected union representations. A much larger group of workers who care for those who aren't their relatives had voted for representation. But because Illinois had accepted the union in 2003, nonmembers had to pay their fair share of expenses for negotiating a contract.
Here's more from Nina:
"Those opposing any fair-share fee have several claims. First, they say the state is not their employer, because under this program, the individual patients, known as customers, hire and fire their own aides. The state replies that the program was designed that way because these workers would be in people's private homes. But the aides are trained and supervised by the state, equipped with supplies by the state and paid twice a month by the state, and the state can fire them.
"The second claim by the objectors is their view of the union as little more than a lobbying group."
Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, a 1977 Supreme Court decision, allowed public sector unions to pass some costs on to nonmembers who are covered by the union's representation, as long as those fees did not go toward political causes.
Harris and other workers had asked the justices to overturn that decision. But Alito said the Abood case was confined to "full-fledged state employees."
Writing the dissent for the four liberal justices, Justice Elena Kagan said the court's decision to leave Abood in place "is cause for satisfaction, though hardly applause."
A lower court, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, had rejected the current lawsuit, citing the 1977 case as precedent.
The case is Harris v. Quinn.