Public employee unions not out of the woods yet

Conservatives hoped that the Supreme Court would take the opportunity presented by Harris v. Quinn to strike down a 1977 decision holding that full-fledged public employees “who choose not to join a public-sector union may nevertheless be compelled to pay an agency fee to support union work that is related to the collective-bargaining process.” The Supreme Court did not do so.

This does not mean, however, that the 1977 decision — Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977) — is safe from further review. The Court today stated that it was “unnecessary to reach petitioners’ argument that Abood should be overruled” because the homecare providers in Harris “are quite different from full-fledged public employees.”

However, Ray LaJeunesse of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which represented the plaintiffs in Harris, points out that the Court deemed the Abood decision “questionable on several grounds.” LaJeunesse adds that his organization has cases in the pipeline in which the plaintiffs are full-fledged public employees. Thus, the Supreme Court should have opportunities in the near future to overturn Abood.

It’s not clear that the Court will hear such a case; nor is it clear how it would decide the issue. But public employee unions still face the real possibility that Abood will be overturned.

Moreover, LaJeunesse finds important consequences in what the Court did decide in Harris. He argues that under the Court’s holding, similar schemes to extract union dues in more than a dozen states are unconstitutional. In addition, the Court’s ruling precludes attempts to collect mandatory union dues from “a host of [other] workers who receive payments from a governmental entity for some sort of service” (to use the words of the Harris Court).