Time will tell whether unions recover from the Supreme Court’s decision

Written By By Mark Brown Posted: 07/01/2014, 06:14am

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday delivered a punch to the solar plexus of what’s left of the American labor movement, although happily not the knockout blow conservatives were seeking.

Only time will tell whether labor unions will recover from the blow or whether the high court will follow up with another more crippling shot as soon as it gets the right case.

Make no mistake: the end goal of those who successfully sought to halt the practice of requiring thousands of home health care workers in Illinois to pay union dues was to smash public sector unions for good.

The Supreme Court didn’t go that far Monday, but the majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, left several clues that some members of the court would prefer to go further in that direction by barring all government unions from collecting forced dues — if given the opportunity.

Such a ruling would throw those unions into the “right to work” netherworld that could eventually destroy whatever influence labor has left.

I hate to tell you, but whatever their shortcomings, if the public sector unions get their legs cut off, I’m not sure who will be left to fight for working men and women in this country, given the rate at which labor unions are fast disappearing in the private sector.

Flora Johnson knows this. The 80-year-old Johnson is one of the homecare personal assistants represented by Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois & Indiana.

“They’re not after us because we’re weak. They’re after us because we’re strong. They’re trying to weaken us,” said Johnson, who also is an organizer for the union.

Johnson’s 47-year-old son was born with cerebral palsy. As a loving parent, she has taken care of him his entire life.

But since 2000, she has been paid to do so under the state’s Medicaid program in recognition by public officials that keeping those with disabilities at home with their families was not only humane but also more cost-effective when feasible.

When Johnson started, employees in the program were paid about $5 an hour. By the end of this year, that will have reached $13 an hour, which Johnson attributes to having a union negotiating on her behalf.

The advantage of better wages and benefits to home health care workers is plain for even conservatives to see. A better-compensated workforce makes the jobs more attractive and cuts down on turnover, making for more stable relationships between clients and workers — most of whom are not family members.

Johnson believes her union dues, which can run up to 3.3 percent of a worker’s income or a maximum of $75 a month, are well worth the cost.

Others in Johnson’s situation objected to joining the union — and to paying so-called “fair share fees” in lieu of union dues they were assessed. Those fees of 2.5 percent of income — up to $56 a month — are not supposed to be used to support a union’s political activities.

In Monday’s ruling, the Supreme Court held that these personal assistants are not really state employees and therefore should not be governed by the same laws and court decisions that have previously upheld such fair share fees.

I can certainly see that this is a unique group of employees who may not naturally fit a union model, especially when it involves a parent being paid to take care of a child. (Just the same, I find it somewhat ironic that many of the people who see compulsory union membership as improper are the same folks who would probably be opposed to family members even being paid under this program, if given the choice.)

There’s also no denying that public employee unions pose problems for our system of government, given the inherent conflicts of interest created when government officials negotiate with their political benefactors. I’m often exasperated by public sector unions fighting for their members at the expense of the public at large.

But crushing them is not going to benefit working people, especially given the increasingly unfettered role of corporate interests and the wealthy in financing politics — another development pushed by this Supreme Court in the name of free speech.

For now, anti-union forces have won the day. The unions live to fight another day.

Email: markbrown@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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