Can States Forcibly Unionize Small Businesses?

Imagine that you run a family daycare out of your home. You have no direct connection to the state government, but its bureaucrats decide that because you lack an “organized voice” as a profession, they’re going to appoint a union representative to speak on your behalf. So you get a union you didn’t choose and which you refuse to join. This union is now representing your “interests” before the state, which isn’t even your employer. All this despite the fact that you might not even agree with what the union is saying!

It sounds far-fetched, but this is what’s happening to Mary Jarvis and several others in New York. These plaintiffs have sued the Empire State, arguing that the imposition of an exclusive representative violates their First Amendment freedom of association.

In the 2014 case Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court ruled that states that unionize healthcare aides and other home-based workers who are “not full-fledged public employees” cannot require those who do not wish to join the union to pay fees to support it. This new case asks the question Harris left unanswered: May a state even mandate exclusive representation for those who are “not full-fledged public employees”—or not employees of the state at all?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said that the case is easily resolved under Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977)—which allowed the imposition of “agency fees” on union nonmembers—and does not require further First Amendment scrutiny. Abood, however, is like a house built on the sand: It treated the First Amendment concerns public unions (should) raise as already resolved by earlier cases when in fact those cases merely resolved the question of whether Congress has the constitutional authority to regulate those public unions. Abood’s reliance on the notion of “labor peace”—which was significant in those old cases but shouldn’t be a valid First Amendment interest—conflicts with the First Amendment’s ban on compelled speech and association absent a substantial government interest.

Although the Second Circuit treated this case as automatically resolved under Abood, it would actually be a vast expansion of precedent to say that “labor peace” justifies forcibly unionizing at-home workers who are independent from the state government. States are already doing this in a number of jurisdictions—including in the First Circuit, which recently upheld a similar Massachusetts law that Cato earlier urged the Supreme Court to hear—but expanding Abood here would enable the states to mandate exclusive representation for almost any private business.

Where does it stop? Cato has filed a brief asking the Court to answer that question once and for all, and ultimately to rule that Abood should not be read to give the states free rein to unionize individuals at the expense of their First Amendment rights. The case is Jarvis v. Cuomo.