Just like their counterparts in the private sector, government workers have long been able to join unions, which then charge dues to cover expenses for services that include negotiating wages and advocating for political action. And just like their private sector counterparts, public employees who don't want to join the union have been able to withhold dues while paying "agency fees" to cover just the cost of bargaining for wages. The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that home-care workers in Illinois can't be compelled to pay those fees, and it is tempting to seek comfort in the limits of the decision.
After all, the court did not reject the right of public employees to organize unions. It did not strike down state laws letting unions collect fees from full-time public workers who don't want to join, nor did it overturn its 1977 opinion upholding such laws. It's not clear whether the ruling covers only Illinois' home-care workers.
The court restricted the ruling to workers whose jobs appear to have more attributes of private contracting with individual clients than of public employment. Its bottom line was that Illinois home-care workers aren't really public employees, so it need not reach the question of whether public employees who don't join a union or pay full dues must still pay their fair share to cover the cost of contract negotiations.
A full reading of the opinion in Harris vs. Quinn is nevertheless chilling. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. may not have been ready to reach what sounds like his ultimate destination: invalidating mandatory agency fees for public employees. But his opinion attempts to map the route. Merely seeking better wages and conditions, he suggested, is an inherently political act when the employer is the government, so compelling an employee to pay for that against his or her will violates the 1st Amendment — even if the employee is allowed not to join or pay full dues.
In drawing his road map for the attack on public employee unions, though, Alito also exposed his argument and laid out the route for defenders, inviting them to follow it if they can. They should do so. Public employees aren't always popular, but they should be able to negotiate their pay and workplace conditions, as other workers do.