The Supreme Court ruled Monday that certain public sector employees who benefit from a labor union’s representation will no longer have to pay union fees.

According to the decision in Harris v. Quinn, written by Justice Alito, unions can now only take dues from full state employees, not “partial public employees” – people that may be employed by an individual but who are paid by the state, like the Illinois home health care workers in the case. Illinois is one of 26 states that requires public sector workers to pay partial dues to unions. A 5-4 majority of the Court, however, found that such a requirement, as applied to “partial public employees,” violates the First Amendment. Justice Kagan wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, and Justice Sotomayor.

The Harris decision will affect around 26,000 home care workers who are paid with Medicaid funds, as well as their patients. In the 10 years since home healthcare workers have been allowed to unionize in Illinois, there have been not only significant improvements in their working conditions but also significant improvements in training. “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,” reported NPR’s Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in January. 

The ruling in Harris is expected to lead to a large loss of union members and therefore a loss of union services that improve working conditions for all people in the union industries, like negotiating contracts and providing legal representation for grievances.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court did not strike down Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, a 1977 case that allows public sector unions to require fees from nonmembers who benefit from the union’s representation.

Media Resources: NPR 6/30/14; SCOTUSblog 6/30/14; Politico 6/30/14; New York Times 6/30/14

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