The Service Employees International Union has been one of the fastest-growing unions in the country, a success story during a challenging time for labor.
But the SEIU may have trouble maintaining its growth after Monday's Supreme Court decision allowing home healthcare workers to opt out of paying union fees even if the union bargains on their behalf. If history is any guide, once workers can opt out of paying fees, they also opt out of belonging to the union.
Home healthcare workers "had become an area of expansion for the unions," said Daniel DiSalvo, assistant professor of political science at City College of New York and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Now, he said, "they're going to grow much less quickly. If anything, this decision would point to the fact that there could be some rollback in this area."
About 20% of the SEIU's 2.1 million members are home healthcare workers.
Although the court's ruling in Harris et al vs. Quinn specifically applies to 26,000 home healthcare workers in Illinois, it could eventually affect more than 300,000 unionized home healthcare workers in California, and tens of thousands of others in Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts and elsewhere.
With the SEIU's success getting states such as Minnesota, Vermont and Connecticut to allow home healthcare workers to unionize, it had been poised to keep gaining members as the population ages. The home healthcare aide sector is projected to grow 48% between 2012 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But it's more difficult to get workers engaged with unions if they don't have financial ties to union activities. In Michigan, for instance, union membership of home health aides dropped about 80% after the state stopped classifying them as public employees, thereby no longer requiring them to pay dues, according to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Home healthcare worker unions are structured differently in every state, but the Harris decision could allow union opponents beyond Illinois to challenge requirements that workers pay fees, said Eileen Boris, a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara. Although the impact might not be immediate, the court's decision will force the SEIU to spend more time marketing itself to home healthcare workers. That will cost money, which will be harder to come by without mandatory fees.
"The discouraging thing for the SEIU is that now they will have to design appeals to workers to pay dues instead of automatically collecting these dues," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
California labor leaders said they were researching how the court's decision would affect home healthcare workers in the state. But they were concerned, they said, that eroding union protections could worsen the quality of care. Workers who earn less and don't get benefits tend to quit more frequently, they said.
In the 1990s, the home health aid program was "fragmented, plagued by massive turnover and low pay," said Gary Passmore, vice president of the Congress of California Seniors, an advocacy group. "Beginning in the late 1990s, when public-sector unions became involved, this program was transformed into being what is today viewed as a model across the country."
The SEIU and other unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, say they intend to keep organizing in California, and have set their sights on the hundreds of thousands of home healthcare aides in the state who do not belong to a union.
"We have no intention of slowing down our organizing," said Laphonza Butler, president of the SEIU state council.
That pledge was echoed by the national SEIU in a call with reporters.
"No court case is going to stand in the way of home care workers coming together to have a strong voice for good jobs and quality home care," SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said.