Against Forced Unionization of Independent Workers

Over the past decade, more than a dozen states have forced independent contractors who are paid through Medicaid to join public-sector unions.In 2003, Illinois unionized home healthcare workers and imbued the Service Employees International Union with the right to collect compulsory fees from the workers’ paychecks. Democracy is thus being turned on its head: the elected representatives for the people of Illinois have chosen a sub-representative for some of the people and given that sub-representative a taxing power.

In so doing, they have severely impaired home healthcare workers’ First Amendment right of association and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Without limits on government’s ability to forcibly unionize people who indirectly receive government-funded compensation (an increasingly large group), more and more citizens will have to interact with their representatives through a government-designated intermediary (a union); our democracy will become even more dominated by special interests than it is now.

Cato, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business and the Mackinac Center, filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to address this issue and vindicate the First Amendment freedoms upon which a thriving democracy depends. We argue that the forcible unionization of home healthcare workers serves none of the compelling purposes for public-sector unionization that have been articulated by the Supreme Court.

Because the Court has long recognized that unionization impinges certain constitutional rights, it has limited public-sector collective bargaining to those situations which advance the aims of promoting “labor peace” and eliminating “free riders.” Labor peace is promoted by limiting competing workplace interests from bargaining over the conditions of employment — for example, two unions at the same workplace representing different colleagues. Free riders are non-union employees who enjoy the benefits of union-achieved gains without paying into the union’s war chest. But neither aim is promoted by a system, such as Illinois’s, in which employees work in different locations and in which the customer — the disabled person paying the homecare worker through a Medicaid disbursal—still controls every crucial aspect of the employment relationship, including hiring and firing.

This last fact is most telling: the Illinois law only allows collective bargaining for higher wages and more generous benefits. That is, the law is only about speech — petitioning the government for higher wages and benefits — and does not address workplace conditions at all.

As more and more states push to unionize more workers who indirectly receive government money — campaigns that, in face o dwindling private-sector union membership, have been called “labor’s biggest victory in over sixty years” — it is vital that the Supreme Court articulate a limiting principle on this practice. Otherwise, more and more of us will be forced to interact with our representatives only through government-appointed bodies.