Scalia the Unlikely Swing Vote in Big Workers Rights Case

Today the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Harris v. Quinn, the case regarding the forced unionization of home healthcare workers in Illinois (and by extension the 10 other states with similar laws). To me this is a pretty easy case: just because the state is paying these workers through its Medicaid program doesn’t mean it employs them – just like my doctor isn’t employed by my health-insurance company – which means that it can’t force them to pay dues to a union that negotiates Medicaid reimbursement rates. 

Like most of the labor cases in recent years, however, this one is likely to go 5-4. The so-called “liberal” justices were all openly hostile to the workers’ position, so the challengers will have to sweep the rest of the bench of to win. Fortunately, such an outcome is more than possible – though much will depend on the thinking of Justice Scalia, who was hostile to everyone.

The argument began in a frustrating manner, with a focus on the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and whether a union asking for a pay increase was different from an individual public-sector employee (a policeman, say) asking for the same raise. Justice Scalia correctly pointed out that this wasn’t really the right at issue here, but he further confused the matter in distinguishing the right to petition from the First Amendment (when in fact that right is found in that amendment). He meant to invoke the First Amendment right to the freedoms of speech and association, but also indicated that he was prepared to give the government plenty of leeway when it was acting as an employer.

Justice Alito was the most skeptical of the union/government position, pointing out that unions don’t necessarily act in all workers’ interest, even when they succeed in negotiating certain “gains.” For example, a productive young worker might prefer merit pay to tenure provisions or a defined-benefit pension plan. Chief Justice Roberts was similarly concerned about administering the line between those union expenses that could be “charged” even to nonmembers (because related to collective bargaining) versus those that can’t because they involve political activity. Justice Kennedy, meanwhile, noted that in this era of growing government, increasing the size and cost of the public workforce is more than simple bargaining over wages and benefits; it’s “a fundamental issue of political belief.” In no other context could a government seek to compel its citizens to subsidize such speech. A worker who disagrees with the union view on these political questions is still made to subsidize it. 

It was also heartening to see that the continuing vitality of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) was in play. That case established that, in the interest of “labor peace,” a state could mandate its employees’ association with a union, forcing them to subsidize that union’s speech and submit to it as their exclusive representative for negotiating with the government regarding their employment. (Abood simply assumed, without further analysis, that the Supreme Court had recognized labor peace as a compelling interest.)

Justices Breyer and Kagan were particularly concerned that so many employers and unions had relied on the Abood doctrine over the years, so touching it would implicate significant reliance interests. But overruling or severely limiting Abood would only be one more step in the Court’s trend of protecting individual workers from having to support political activities. More workers could thus opt out of supporting a labor union – but if unions truly provide valuable services for their members, few workers would do so.

Of course, the Court could shy away from touching Abood and simply rule that being paid by state funds alone isn’t sufficient to make someone a state employee. Such a position might more easily attract Justice Scalia’s vote – and that of Chief Justice Roberts, who goes out of his way to rule narrowly – even if it leaves unresolved some of the contradictions at the heart of the jurisprudence in this area, such as the duty of courts to police the murky line between “chargeable” and “nonchargeable” union expenses.

For more on the case, see George Will’s recent op-ed and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial.