David B. Rivkin, Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman have an excellent op-ed at National Review Online about Harris v. Quinn and the deep constitutional issues it raises concerning the forced unionization of home health-care workers. We are now awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision on whether it will hear the case. Cato filed a brief urging the Court to take the case, and Mr. Rivkin and Mr. Grossman were two of the counsels of record on that brief.
Harris is an important case that has seemingly flown under the radar. In 2003, Illinois unionized home health-care workers who get paid out of the Medicaid stipends given to the patients they care for. Home-care workers are now required to pay a portion of their monthly earnings to the Service Employees International Union, which amounts to approximately $3.6 million per year. To make matters worse, the SEIU is essentially unable to better their working conditions. The patients who use home health care retain the ability to hire and fire the workers, as well as control nearly every other part of the working environment. In short, the traditional arguments for why unions are needed—to protect workers and to monitor the working conditions—are explicitly not available for bargaining through the SEIU. The only terms that are available for bargaining are those under the state’s control which, for all intents and purposes, mostly means money.
So why did the SEIU even get involved? Money and power. Not only is $3.6 million annually nothing to scoff at, but public-sector unions are now the only growth area for unions. The advent and growth of public-sector unions has been called "labor's biggest victory in over 60 years." By applying their considerable political power to state legislators or governors, the SEIU can simply get workers designated as “public employees” and thus receive the right to some of their wages. It’s a win-win situation for them.
But it is decidedly not a winning situation for either the workers or the citizens of Illinois. Public-sector unions are organized interest groups that are in favor of one thing: more. More government and government services, more taxes, more benefits, and a generally greater presence of government in nearly every part of our lives. The growth of public-sector unionization also creates a vicious cycle: new workers are unionized and the union then garnishes some their wages; the union spends that money to push for larger government and more government services; the new government employees are then unionized and more wages are garnished, thus giving more political power to the unions. Lather, rinse, repeat.
These agreements turn democracy on its head: our elected representatives are choosing representatives for us. These “representatives” then go to the table to bargain over taxpayer money, decisions about our health care, and other important services. If you’re not at that table, you can be sure that you’re on the menu.
Without some limit on who can be forcibly unionized via executive order or legislation, the situation is likely to get even worse. The unions will certainly not voluntarily stop until someone, such as the United States Supreme Court, tells them that they’ve gone too far. Otherwise, anyone who receives government money (an increasingly large number of people) will be susceptible to forced unionization. At some point this practice violates the core rights of freedom of association and freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances that are guaranteed by the First Amendment. Sooner rather than later, the Supreme Court needs to define that point, and Harris v. Quinn is an excellent vehicle for doing so.
As Greece’s problems continue, we should remember one of the biggest reasons Greece got to where it is today: a bloated and inefficient public-sector workforce. Greece’s public-sector workers are now resisting any attempt to roll back government programs and spending. With 10 states having unionized home health-care workers, the Supreme Court should act quickly to ensure we don’t go further down the same road.