Harris v. Quinn — What happened and what are the implications?

Why we care:

As a firm dedicated to upholding the value of free speech, particularly in the context of labor and politics, we  feel it is important our readers have an unbiased understanding of Harris v. Quinn.  In theory, unions are working to improve the employment conditions of members and nonmembers alike.  All union members, and until now, all nonunion members paid an agency-fee provision. Unions often use the money to support certain candidates or legislation.  The complication is that not everyone paying the fee supports the same policies, so some employees end up funding groups they do not approve of.  This discrepancy brings up issues with the First Amendment.  Prior cases had addressed the First Amendment within unions, but this case further specifies the scope at which agency-fee provisions can be required.  Harris v. Quinn has financial implications for certain unions, which in turn may affect the political landscape because without nonmember fees, these unions will have less expendable cash to exert their influence.

Here is the short version:

Rehabilitation Program personal assistants (PAs) were required to pay a union fee even if they were nonunion members.  They brought a class action suit against the union and State claiming that obligatory subsidization of speech on matters of public concern which they do not wish to join or support is a violation of the First Amendment. The case relied heavily on determining if PAs are full or partial public employees and what the parameters of Abood v. Detroit Bd. Of Ed., 431 U.S. 209 are. It was determined that PAs are partial public employees and as such Abood does not apply to them. The U.S. Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional for these PAs, who are not members of the union, to be required to pay union fees.

Here are the facts:

The personal assistants (PAs) of Illinois’ Home Services Program (Rehabilitation Program) are permitted to join a labor union under Illinois’ Public Labor Relations Act (PLRA) and are exclusively represented by SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana (SEIU-HII).  Due to collective-bargaining agreements with the State, both union and non-union Rehabilitation Program employees must pay the union a fee. A group of Rehabilitation Program PAs brought a class action against SEIU-HII, claiming that the PLRA violated the First Amendment insofar as it authorized the agency-fee provision for nonmembers. Their claims were dismissed by the District Court and the Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision.

Here are the issues:

  • Are Rehabilitation Program PAs full or partial public employees?

This became a critical issue in the case because the court used this distinction to determine the applicability of the ruling established by Abood. It was determined that PAs are partial employees for a variety of reasons.  First, their employment status (i.e. determination of job responsibilities, hiring, and firing) is determined by private customers, not the State.  Second, Illinois does not extend the benefits enjoyed by full state employees to PAs. These benefits include, but are not limited to, statutory retirement, health insurance, group life insurance, and paid vacation, holiday, or sick leave.  The only reason Illinois deems PAs state employees is for the purpose of collective bargaining.  Even on this point the court found the distinction insubstantial because Illinois’ own statue determines that collective bargaining  can only occur for “terms of conditions of employment that are within the State’s control” Ill. Comp. Stat., ch. 20, §2405/3(f). The only thing Illinois has significant control over for PAs is their salary which “shall be paid at the hourly rate set by the law,” see Ill. Comp. Stat., ch. 20, §2405/3(f). Legally the State must pay all PAs the same, making the need for collective bargaining rather obsolete. As a whole, the State has almost no control on PA’s employment.  This means that the collective bargaining unions are so well known for is highly restricted in this situation.  Therefore, the argument that nonunion members must pay a union fee in order to avoid a “free-rider” problem is not strongly applicable to the PAs.

  • To what extent does Abood v. Detroit Bd. Of Ed., 431 U.S. 209 apply to partial public employees?

Abood played a critical role in the District Court and Seventh Circuit’s decisions.  It seemed that as a unionized group, the current clients fell into the same category as the clients in Abood, therefore the same regulations should apply.  However, a critical difference is that the clients in Abood were full-fledged public employees while the PAs are partial public employees.  Abood is “based on the assumption that the union possesses the full scope of powers and duties generally available under American labor law” (Syllabus, pp. 3).  As noted in the previous question, the unique status of PAs as partial public employees means that their union lacks the full scope of power. Applying Abood to this case would significantly expand its boundaries beyond full public employees. It is important to note that the court did not overrule Abood, rather their refusal to extend Abood to this case serves to further establish the boundaries of Abood.

  • Does the First Amendment permit a State to compel personal care providers to subsidize speech on matters of public concern by a union that they do not wish to join or support?

“Because Abood does not control here, generally applicable First Amendment standards apply” (Syllabus, pp. 3).  The interests the union claims to further are not sufficient enough to impose and agency-fee provision.

Here is the holding:

“This case presents the question whether the First Amendment permits a State to compel personal care providers to subsidize speech on matters of public concern by a union that they do not wish to join or support. We hold that it does not, and we therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals” (Opinion of the Court, pp. 1).

The final ruling was made on June 30, 2014.

Here are the implications:

  • How does this affect unions in general?

It appears that unions with employees who are full public employees will remain unaffected.  It is unclear if this ruling will apply to all unions with employees who are not full public employees or if the ruling’s applicability is much narrower.

  • Does this overturn Abood?

No. This case further defines the boundaries of Abood, namely that it only applies to full-fledged public employees.

The court’s written opinion can be found here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/11-681_j426.pdf.


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