In addition to its Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court issued another decision on the last day of its term that may have implications for unions and employers going forward. In Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether certain Illinois partial-public employees could be required to pay “fair share” fees when they elected not to join the public employees union. While the Supreme Court’s decision in this case is narrow, it does lay the groundwork for future challenges to “fair share” fees for all public employees.
The plaintiffs in Harris were “personal assistants” who provided homecare services under the Illinois’ Home Services Program. Under this program, eligible individuals may receive Medicaid funding for homecare services from a personal assistant. Under the terms of this program, while the state pays the salary for the personal assistant, the individual who receives the care from the personal assistant is deemed to be the employer. In 2003, the Illinois Legislature adopted a statute under which personal assistants were deemed to be “public employees” solely for the purpose of collective bargaining under the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act. The statute specifically did not provide any benefits normally available to public employees to personal assistants. Following the passage of the statute, the SEIU, the relevant public employees’ union, entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the state under which personal assistants that chose not to join the union were required to pay “fair share” fees. These fees were automatically deducted from the personal assistants’ Medicaid payments.
In Harris, personal assistants alleged that the “fair share” fees were unconstitutional, arguing that the fees violated their First Amendment rights by requiring them to support a union against their wishes. In addressing this issue, both the district court and the court of appeals rejected this First Amendment argument, relying primarily on the prior decision of the Supreme Court in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977). In Abood, the Supreme Court held that even where public employees choose not to join a union, they may still be required to pay “fair share” fees.
In Harris, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court, refusing to apply the reasoning of Abood to the personal assistants in this case. Writing for the Court, Justice Alito noted that, in this case, the personal assistants at issue were not full-fledged public employees, but rather were deemed public employees solely for the purposes of collective bargaining. The Court concluded that the “fair-share” fee requirement violated the personal assistants’ First Amendment rights, in that the state had not met its burden of showing that the fee requirement served a compelling government interest in the least restrictive manner.
Most importantly, however, the Court strongly criticized the reasoning underlying its prior decision in Abood. While the Court did not overrule Abood, it certainly provided a framework for future challenges to “fair share” fees. In dissent, Justice Kagan attempted to create a firewall against future challenges to the reasoning of Abood, pointing out how “deeply entrenched” the rule from Abood has become and noting that the Courts own “precedent about precedent makes it impossible for this Court to reverse that decision.”
Like its decision in Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court’s decision in Harris, while intentionally narrow, opens the door to future challenges to required “fair share” fees in the public employee context. It will be important for employers and unions, particularly those in the public sector, to continue to monitor this issue.