Government & Politics

Home Caregiver Wins Freedom From Public Union

Supreme Court deals blow to public unions.

Jul. 1, 2014
Pamela Harris and her son, Josh

The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling grabbed most of the headlines, but the Court made another important ruling Monday on public sector unions. In Harris v. Quinn, the Court overturned an appeals court decision and said the government can’t force a person offering care for a disabled relative to pay public union dues.

Illinois claimed that because home caregivers like Pamela Harris, a 55-year-old mother who serves as a personal assistant (PA) to her severely disabled son, Josh, receive taxpayer money, they are subject to union dues as state employees. Yet PAs in Illinois were treated as public “employees” solely for the purpose of extracting union dues. In every other way, they were considered private sector workers.

The Washington Free Beacon framed the ruling this way: “In a 5-4 ruling, the court found the state of Illinois violated the Constitution when [now] imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich agreed to funnel a portion of home healthcare worker checks to political allies SEIU [Service Employees International Union] and AFSCME [American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees]. The unions collected more than $50 million from about 20,000 such people over a five-year period.”

Justice Samuel Alito authored the majority opinion, writing, “Unlike full-fledged public employees, PAs are almost entirely answerable to the customers and not to the State, do not enjoy most of the rights and benefits that inure to state employees, and are not indemnified by the State for claims against them arising from actions taken during the course of their employment.” Indeed, the only benefiting party is the state, not the caregiver or the care recipient.

The ruling did, however, stop short of overturning Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which the Beacon describes as “a 1977 ruling that allowed public sector unions to compel dues from non-members.” But that points to a key distinction between the two cases and a reason Abood wasn’t overturned. The earlier ruling focused on non-members while Harris dealt with non-employees. Still, Alito hinted Abood might be overturned if challenged, writing, “The Abood Court’s analysis is questionable on several grounds. Some of these were noted or apparent at or before the time of the decision, but several have become more evident and troubling in the years since then.”

Unions in general have been in decline for the last 40 years, and there’s no question the Harris decision – not to mention last week’s major blow on Barack Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board – presents a roadblock to this type of desperate effort to regain influence.

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