Supreme Court issues mixed ruling for unions in Harris v. Quinn

Today’s Supreme Court ruling in Harris v. Quinn leaves intact the ability of MTA and affiliates to negotiate fair wages, hours and working conditions for members – and to remain a strong force on behalf of quality public education. The decision was mixed for unions, however, since it forbids extending fair share requirements – also known as “agency fee” payments – to what the court referred to as “quasi-public employees,” including the home health aides in question in this Illinois case.

The court’s 5-4 ruling leaves untouched contract provisions in Massachusetts and other states under which public employees may be required to make fair share payments toward the cost of bargaining and maintaining contracts negotiated on their behalf.

“We are gratified that the court honored past precedent and continues to uphold the constitutionality of fair share requirements,” said MTA President Paul Toner. “That said, we strongly disagree with the majority opinion that prevents extending those requirements to employees under contract with the state who work in people’s homes and are therefore also employed by the client.”

Under the system that currently exists in Massachusetts and many other states, if a majority of public employees vote to have a union to represent their interests, the union becomes the exclusive bargaining agent for all employees in that bargaining unit. All bargaining unit members receive the pay and benefits negotiated by the union as well as representation in protecting their terms and conditions of employment.

Employees do not have to join the union and cannot be assessed dues if they do not join. However, if employees in the bargaining unit have voted a fair share provision for that local, then non-members must pay a fee for their proportionate share of the union’s cost of bargaining the contract and enforcing employee’s rights under it. Fair share payments may not be used to promote candidates or causes, and non-members may not access benefits offered only to members.

“It is no coincidence that we are one of the most heavily unionized states in the country and also have the highest student achievement.”

- MTA President Paul Toner

The MTA is the largest union in the state, with 110,000 members. Currently, 96 percent of the professional staff working in affiliates represented by the MTA are dues-paying members. Toner said that today’s decision leaves the MTA strong.

“Our union has been good for our members and good for public education in Massachusetts,” he said. “Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. It is no coincidence that we are one of the most heavily unionized states in the country and also have the highest student achievement.”

Toner expressed concern that Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, criticized a prior case – Abood v. Detroit Board of Education – that upheld the constitutionality of fair share requirements. Abood was decided 37 years ago and thousands of contracts have been negotiated and maintained based on the findings in that case. While criticizing Abood, the decision nonetheless left its core finding in place. Court observers noted, however, that Alito’s negative comments about Abood could signal that some in the majority might be willing to consider a fair share case with more sweeping ramifications.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissenters in Harris v. Quinn, criticized Alito’s attacks on Abood and disagreed strongly with the majority opinion’s refusal to sanction fair share requirements for home health aides in Illinois. Kagan was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel also criticized that portion of the ruling.

“Quality public services, economic stability and prosperity start with strong unions, but today the Supreme Court of the United States created a roadblock on that path to the American Dream,” he said. “This ruling jeopardizes a proven method for raising the quality of home health care services — namely, allowing home health care workers to join together in a strong union that can bargain for increased wages, affordable health care and increased training.”

“Agency fees are a common-sense, straightforward way to ensure fairness and protect equity and individual rights,” Van Roekel continued. “Every educator who enjoys the benefits and protections of a negotiated contract should, in fairness, contribute to maintaining the contract. And fair share simply makes sure that all educators share the cost of negotiations for benefits that all educators enjoy, regardless of whether they are association members.”

In states that do not allow fair share provisions, non-payers are referred to as “free-riders” or “free-loaders” because they do not pay anything for the benefits that their colleagues who belong to the union have fought for and financed.

To read the decision, click here.

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