While the Supreme Court’s other last-day-of-the-term decision in the Hobby Lobby case may have dominated the mainstream and social media’s attention yesterday, the high court also handed down a 5-4 decision in Harris v. Quinn, which may signal long-term implications for the American labor movement.  Writing for the Court, Justice Alito summed up the decision thus:

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.

The case challenged the collection of “agency fee” payments.  When a union is the recognized exclusive bargaining representative of employees in the workplace, a covered employee may choose not to join the union.  To this point, the union could, however, require payment of some amount of money — not union membership dues — from these non-members as compensation for fulfillment of its representational duties — e.g., collective bargaining, grievance processing, etc.

Public-sector labor unions, who derive significant financial resources from the mandatory collection of these fees, feared that the Court would invalidate all such arrangements.  Instead, the Court drew a distinction between the “partial public employees” (home care attendants) at issue in this case on the one hand, and “full-fledged” state employees on the other.  For the former, the Court held that the First Amendment protects them from compulsory financial support for a labor organization they do not want to join.

The dissent, authored by Justice Kagan, criticizes the majority opinion for ignoring or trying to undermine the settled precedent announced decades ago in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977).  That case held:

A Michigan statute authorizing union representation of local governmental employees permits an “agency shop” arrangement, whereby every employee represented by a union, even though not a union member, must pay to the union, as a condition of employment, a service charge equal in amount to union dues.

A commentary at the SCOTUSblog (which, perhaps we need to point out, was written by a very bright commentator — not a Supreme Court Justice) suggests that the Harris majority may very well have wanted to overrule Abood more broadly, but

…stopped short of the ultimate conclusion that Abood could no longer stand, however.  While that ruling has many flaws, Justice Alito wrote, the Court could stop at this point by refusing to extend it to “partial public employees.”

Time will tell if the rationale of the Harris case is extended to outlaw more broadly the agency shop model of compulsory financial support for public sector unions.

More commentary and analysis: