How Unions Should Respond to Harris v. Quinn

SEIU protest targeting Wells Fargo (SEIU International, 2012, Flickr creative commons)

This week a 5–4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court took away the power of a union to collect mandatory “agency fees” from the Illinois home care workers it represents in collective bargaining. The decision, in Harris v. Quinn, will hurt low-wage home care and day care workers, a large proportion of whom are women and people of color. They have made major strides in recent years in winning better pay and elevating the status of their difficult work, thanks to strong unions like SEIU’s Healthcare Illinois & Indiana (HCII), the organization targeted in this case.

Although Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion was not as sweeping as labor advocates feared, he did hint strongly that the court should strip all public sector unions of the ability to collect fees should an appropriate case present itself. Alito would clearly like to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), the precedent that permits public sector unions to collect these sums from workers, whether union members or not, as long as the money is not used for political activity. He served notice that, given the right case, the Court’s conservative majority will find that all public sector collective bargaining is inherently political and therefore that the legally enforced collection of agency fees would amount to a violation of the First Amendment. That would effectively nationalize the approach of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who pushed through a law in 2011 that prevented public sector unions from collecting agency fees. As a consequence, the Wisconsin State Employees Union lost 60 percent of its members and two-thirds of its budget. If implemented nationally, such a policy could devastate organized labor.

Unionists cannot afford to wait to see whether a future court will give Justice Alito his wish. They need to respond now by building wider and deeper public support for a new, community-based approach to collective bargaining, support that can withstand hostile court decisions.

Most states and cities currently forbid unions from bargaining over a host of issues that determine a community’s quality of life: how governments distribute corporate tax breaks (the value of which far exceeds that of government pension liabilities), how and with whom government entities do their banking, what tuition levels would keep state universities affordable, what minimum wages would allow private sector workers to live in dignity, and a host of other “common good” issues. Unions are often only permitted to bargain around issues—pay and benefits—that make it easier for their opponents to portray bargaining as a win-lose proposition pitting unions against hard-pressed taxpayers.

Some forward-looking unions have already begun to challenge such bargaining restrictions, embracing a “common good” approach. They realize their future depends on uplifting beleaguered private sector workers as well. After all, anti-labor politicians like Scott Walker and judges like Alito trade on the false assumption that unionization drives up the costs of government, hurts taxpayers, and benefits “privileged” public employees at the expense of private ones.

To contest this image, teachers in St. Paul, Minnesota, Oregon state employees, and, yes, Illinois home care workers among others have begun joining hands with community organizations to jointly craft bargaining demands. Anticipating the Harris decision, representatives of these workers joined 130 labor and community activists in Washington, D.C, a month ago for a conference called Bargaining for the Common Good (hosted by the Kalmanovitz Initiative, of which I am the executive director). They vowed to break the straitjacket of old-fashioned collective bargaining and create new community-labor bargaining alliances focused on advancing the common interests of workers—public and private—and defending the communities in which they live.

These activists envision bargaining campaigns that would press cities, states, and school districts to renegotiate predatory loans and claw back money lost to market manipulations. They would create transparency requirements for all financial deals, take pension fund management in-house, create public banks to receive tax receipts, and ensure that no employers who hire workers for less than a living wage get taxpayer-funded contracts. Raising demands like these, unions and their allies are making common cause against the forces of financialization, privatization, and outsourcing that are undermining American workers and their communities.

By clarifying that he means to overturn Abood, Justice Alito might produce a result he did not anticipate. The day after he delivered his opinion, dozens of trash haulers and community allies blocked traffic around City Hall in Los Angeles to protest the millions of dollars of “predatory fees” LA pays to Wall Street. That action both alerted taxpayers to the ways financial firms bilk them and showed how organized workers can defend the common good. The judicial attack on public sector unions is likely to cause more such actions of this kind in the months ahead.

Thus Harris v. Quinn might end up accelerating the transformation of public sector unions, midwifing a new, community-based unionism and a broader form of collective bargaining capable of challenging our country’s deepening inequality. The ball is now in labor’s court.


Joseph A. McCartin is executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers and the Strike that Changed America.