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Supreme Court rules that part time government workers may opt out of union fees

The high court ruled has ruled that while partial government employees may not be required to pay union fees, that full-fledged government employees are not exempt from union fees.
The high court ruled has ruled that while partial government employees may not be required to pay union fees, that full-fledged government employees are not exempt from union fees.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In a decision with ramifications that are likely to reverberate for decades to come, The United States Supreme Court ruled that while partial government employees cannot be compelled to pay union fees, full-fledged government employees are not exempt from paying such fees, according to Ny Times.com on Monday. The Court's decision was made in response to the case (Harris v. Quinn) of eight workers in the state of Illinois who brought suit to overturn a 1977 decision requiring employees to pay union fees to unions with which they had philosophical differences (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education). Although the high court failed to overturn the Abood ruling, Justice Alito expressed his strong reservations about the ruling, stating that compelling teachers, police officers and other public officials to pay dues to unions that advocate for political views with which they disagree is a violation of their First Amendment rights to free speech.

Although Alito felt that the Abood decision had ramifications that infringe on workers' First Amendment rights, he and four other justices stopped short of totally overturning the 1977 decision. The justices ruled that the Abood decision only should be applicable for full-fledged government employees such as teachers, police and fire-fighters. The ruling demonstrated the Court's uneasiness with a whole gamut of court decisions in years past that have held that all government workers should be compelled to pay union fees because the collective bargaining and grievances brought forth by the unions benefit all members. Justice Alito expressed his disapproval of the rationale for these prior court decisions:

“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 subsized speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”

Justice Alito did state, however, that home health care workers, who take care of sick or disabled patients, should be classified as partial government employees, and thereby should be exempted from paying union fees, or dues.

Justice Kagan, in expressing the minority opinion, noted that home care workers in Illinois are regulated by the state and that the state holds dominion over their working conditions, and terms of employment, contracts, etc.. Kagan stated that among other things, the original Abbod decision was aimed at preventing "free riding," wherein employees who do not pay union dues nevertheless benefit when union members get wage increases, cost of living increases, improved working conditions, etc.. In expressing her discontent with the high court ruling, Kagan wrote:

“Today’s opinion takes the tack of throwing everything against the wall in the hope that something might stick. A vain hope, as it turns out.”

While the high court ruling does give partial government employees and home health care workers a choice whether or not to pay union fees, it nevertheless does uphold the basic structural integrity of union fees for full-fledged government employees. It is unclear, however, just what precedent this ruling may have over future high court decisions on this matter or what the long term ramifications may be for unions and collective bargaining.