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What is Harris v. Quinn and why does it matter?

The Supreme Court in June will have the opportunity to enact a landmark ruling to protect the First Amendment rights of workers against powerful unions in the case of Harris v Quinn. The Court previously heard arguments from both sides in the case, on Jan. 21.

Here is the background on the case. The State of Illinois runs a Medicaid-waiver program that pays for in-home care for certain disabled individuals. In 2003, then Governor Rod Blagojevich issued an executive order declaring all Illinois home healthcare aides to be state employees. The state now designates these home care providers as state employees for collective bargaining purposes only and forces them to financially support the Service Employees International Union as their bargaining representative even if they are not members. In 2009, Governor Pat Quinn decided to expand Blagojevich’s executive order to cover an additional 4,500 providers who were originally not included. But in a 2010 mail-in vote, those homecare workers rejected unionization.

One worker, Pamela Harris, has objected to the fees and sued the state. There are two arguments her legal team has put forward. First, forcing Harris to contribute to an organization of which she is not a member violates her First Amendment rights. Second, the state of Illinois does not have the authority under the United States Constitution to declare itself the home-care providers’ employer via executive order.

The Court last year ruled in the case of Knox vs. SEIU that public employee union members could not be forced to pay union dues for political advocacy. The Supreme Court must now determine whether they are or are not state employees.

Harris v Quinn will have major repercussions in the area of labor law and public worker unions. Because union membership in the private sector has declined almost every year since World War II, organized labor has targeted public workers for unionization. This explains why unions like SEIU and AFSCME have grown in membership in contrast to their counterparts in the private sector. These unions have also become arguably the most powerful funding source for the Democratic Party in elections.

There are a few ways as to how the Supreme Court could rule. The first would be that the court rules in favor of the unions and leaves the status quo in place. This would be a huge blow for the First Amendment and the rights of workers. A second option would be a ruling that would only affect the home health care workers in Illinois.

If Harris prevails in this case, however, then it will prove a major blow to public worker unions’ efforts to unionize other areas of the growing service industry sector. This would also damage the Democratic Party’s funding apparatus because unions would lose potentially several hundred thousand members in Illinois and in other states. Under current practice, unions are able to collect dues through automatic payroll deductions from workers who have not signed up. Unions would need to recruit those workers to avoid losing substantial dues funding. This tends to work out poorly for unions when they can longer force employees to join. The most famous example of this happened in Wisconsin.

All eyes will be on the Supreme Court in four short months. Let’s hope they vote in favor of the First Amendment rather than the SEIU.