In homecare decision, U.S. Supreme Court favors income inequality

With the Harris v. Quinn decision, the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court continues to chip away at the union rights of public sector workers.

It’s a victory for the anti-union “Right To Work” movement — and a good moment to ask where all this is headed.

Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion bars the Illinois homecare workers union from collecting “fair share” agency fees from workers in the bargaining unit who choose not to join the union.  The fees cover the costs of contract negotiations and administration.  The opinion hinges on the contention that homecare workers are not state employees because individual customers hire them.

In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan dismisses this contention, pointing out that the state determines wage rates, benefits, training and qualifications for the workers.  The bottom line seems fairly simple: “If a worker wants an increase in pay, she must ask the state, not the individual customer,” Kagan writes.

As we noted a couple weeks ago, Illinois homecare workers have won significant improvements in pay — not to mention previously unavailable health coverage and paid training — since they voted to join SEIU Healthcare Illinois.

Given those realities, why would eight Illinois homecare workers file suit to challenge the union?  Judging from their statements, they may be misinformed.

In a TV interview, plaintiff Pamela Harris said, “I have real fears about unionism in my home.” She added that it will “interfere with” and “compromise” the care she gives her son.

Disability rights groups have argued, to the contrary, that better pay has created a more stable workforce and paid training has significantly improved the quality of care.

She also complains that union dues would come out of her son’s disability check.  That’s not true either.  They come out of the homecare worker’s paycheck. Union dues amount to about 3.3 percent of pay; agency fees, which are paid to administer contracts that have raised hourly wages from $7 to $13 and provided health insurance, are less than 2.5 percent.

Harris and her co-plaintiffs were represented by the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, and its agenda is fairly clear: to undermine unions.  In the name of “freedom” and “choice,” and posing as workers’ advocates, the group goes after the payroll deductions that make possible the operation of unions chosen by a majority of workers in a bargaining unit.

And the foundation goes beyond that.  It intervened last year in Chattanooga, Tenn., filing a complaint to block union recognition after a majority of Volkswagen workers signed cards to join the UAW.  They supported an employer lawsuit that successfully challenged President Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, the point of which was simply to prevent the NLRB from functioning.

To suss out the group’s underlying goals, follow the money. The legal fund of the National Right to Work Committee is backed by the usual panoply of right-wing funders, including the Koch Brothers’ Freedom Partners, all committed to eliminating unions in their role as the major counterweight to corporate power in America.

Major funders include the Walton Foundation, which has given over half a million dollars to NRWLDF since 2000 — and which represents the owners of Wal-Mart, the largest low-wage employer in the nation and perhaps the most anti-union. The company has closed departments and entire stores when workforces voted to unionize.

With private sector unions decimated by deindustrialization, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation  is going after the public sector.  In Harris v. Quinn, they urged the court to overturn a 1977 decision allowing agency fee deductions for public sector unions.  The court declined to do so, but Alito’s decision seemed to invite a challenge to the precedent.

We can see what this would mean in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker passed legislation preventing public unions from negotiating over anything but wages, with wage hikes limited to the rate of inflation.  With two years of wage freezes and increased health care charges, Wisconsin public workers’ take-home pay has dropped by 10 percent, according to a New York Times report.  The president of the oldest public employees union in the nation, AFSCME Local 1 in Madison, says her family is now on food stamps.

At a moment when income inequality is emerging as a national concern, the Supreme Court is siding with the forces pushing to further erode living standards and to extract the highest corporate profits conceivable.  The court’s conservatives have gone after one of the lowest-paid groups of workers in the nation, predominantly minority and female.  Tens of thousands of homecare workers have won a measure of dignity and something approaching a living wage through their union activism. According to Justice Alito and his colleagues, this is unacceptable.

This is a group of workers who only won coverage by minimum wage laws in 2013.  Let’s pause to recall that until 1937, the Supreme Court held that the minimum wage was an unconstitutional infringement on the liberty of contract.

In Illinois, union activists are undaunted.  “We are steady signing up people,” said Flora Johnson, a veteran homecare worker and chair of the executive board of SEIU Healthcare Illinois.  “We go out and show people the progress we’ve made, and they tell us, we’ve got to join.”

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