The Supreme Court has long applied exacting scrutiny to limitations placed on the freedoms of speech and association. Unfortunately, the Court has not extended such protection to those forcibly unionized.
In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), the Court accepted that promoting “labor peace”—limiting the number of competing workplace interests that bargain over the conditions of employment—was an interest so compelling that a state may mandate its employees’ association with a labor 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. Since that time, more than a dozen states have forcibly unionized independent contractors who are paid through Medicaid.
In 2003, Illinois forced its home healthcare workers to join and pay dues to the Service Employees International Union as their sole representative before the state. Workers subject to this coerced association have challenged the law as a violation of their First Amendment rights and the case is now before the Supreme Court. Cato, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business, has filed an amicus brief in support. We argue that Abood was wrong when it was decided and should now be overturned. Abood simply assumed without analysis that the Supreme Court had already recognized “labor peace” as a “compelling interest.”
But the cases Abood relied on only regarded “labor peace” as justifying Congress’s exercise of its Commerce Clause authority to regulate labor relations, not as a basis to override workers’ First Amendment rights—and a Commerce Clause analysis is logically irrelevant to the First Amendment. Furthermore, Abood turns the logic of the First Amendment on its head: Unions are designated as the exclusive representatives of those employees that are compelled to support them for the sole purpose of suppressing the speech of dissenting employees, but under Abood it is exactly this suppression of speech that validates coerced association under the First Amendment. Such logic can’t be reconciled with the Court’s strict scrutiny of laws in other First Amendment contexts.
Even if the Court chooses to maintain Abood, it should reject the coercive programs at issue here because they’re unsupported by Abood’s rationale and serve no other compelling state interest. The homecare workers subject to the law aren’t employed by the state. Although they’re paid through a Medicaid disbursal, every crucial aspect of the employment relationship, including workplace conditions, hiring, and firing, is determined by the individual cared-for by the worker. The union is thus limited to petitioning the state for greater pay and benefits. Given this limited scope, there can be no serious claim that SEIU’s exclusive representation of some workers has freed Illinois from any great burden due to “conflicting demands” from other workers. Whatever Abood’s long-term vitality, that flawed case doesn’t support the compelled unionization of workers who are in no way managed by the state.
The Supreme Court will hear Harris v. Quinn on January 21.
This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Lauren Barlow.