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National view: Court slows unions’ power grab

In a decision that will have major repercussions in Minnesota, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 30 that people participating in state-benefit programs cannot be forced to pay dues to a union. The Harris v. Quinn ruling means thousands of child care providers in the state likely will not be force-unionized. And if they do get a union, they certainly will not be obligated to pay union dues.

This is a major blow to government employee unions hoping to expand their reach and income.

For more than a decade, about a dozen states have forced people who are not state workers — people like home child care providers for low-income children and also moms and dads caring for children with developmental disabilities — to pay union dues as a condition of receiving government help. Minnesota was set to join them: Legislation allowing for child care unions was on the books, and in spite of the Supreme Court ruling the Service Employees International Union intends to go on with a union election.

The decision in Harris v. Quinn chips away at unions’ power to compel membership, strips unions of millions of dollars in dues they never should have received and lays the groundwork for future courts to free all government employees from the shackles of forced union dues.

To understand why this ruling matters so much, consider the back story. Several years ago, the SEIU persuaded former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to allow two groups of people to be unionized, child care providers and people caring for the developmentally disabled in Illinois’ Medicaid program. Neither group had ever been considered state employees, and rightly so. Most home-based caregivers take care of relatives, while child care providers look after children from poor families who receive child care subsidies. Once unionized, SEIU began making $20 million in dues each year from the two groups. When sitting Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn assumed office in 2009, he issued an executive order allowing the unionization of yet another group of Illinois Medicaid beneficiaries.

Suburban Chicago mom Pamela Harris, whose youngest child has a rare genetic disorder, was one of the parents targeted for union membership. Because she would rather stay home full-time to care for her son than put him in a state facility or child care center, she qualified for a Medicaid benefit from the state worth about $25,000 per year. But the unions wanted a cut of this money.

Harris didn’t want to join the union, so she joined other families who already paid forced dues in a lawsuit challenging the scheme. In siding with Harris against the state of Illinois and SEIU last month, the high court addressed a point raised by the Illinois Policy Institute in an amicus brief: Paying dues to a union should not be a condition of receiving help from the state to care for a loved one.

Minnesota is among 25 states that require government employees to pay union dues, regardless of whether they support the union or whether they really want the benefit of union representation. It’s wrong, and fortunately the high court took a step toward righting that wrong.

The ruling is a victory for thousands of people across the country, and especially for child care providers in Minnesota. Even if the SEIU wins its election, its new members won’t be forced to pay dues. But the court could have gone further. It could have and should have eliminated union membership as a condition of employment for all people in states that do not have right-to-work laws. Still, at least the court issued unions a stern warning: Don’t extract dues from people who aren’t even employees.

Harris v. Quinn put union bosses across the country on notice. In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito criticized the holding precedent that permits states to compel union dues from public-sector employees. He dubbed that decision, known as Abood, both “questionable” and “anomalous.” Perhaps someday soon the court will finish what it started.

Paul Kersey is the director of labor policy at the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this version of his column specifically for the News Tribune.