The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case asking it to limit the power of public unions to collect fees from nonmembers. The case could threaten the finances and membership efforts of unions that represent healthcare workers at publicly owned providers.
A group of California teachers is asking the high court to overturn a longstanding legal precedent that allows public unions to collect fees from nonmembers to cover bargaining costs, as long as those fees aren't used for political purposes. The teachers say their First Amendment right is violated by forcing them to financially support unions that subscribe to opposing positions.
In the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the court ruled that nonmember fees promote labor peace and ensure that nonmembers are responsible for funding the union that still negotiates on their behalf. That ruling has since allowed unions to fund their negotiating activities through so-called “agency fees” in states where the practice is legal.
The case, Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, could have a major effect on union finances and member retention, said Peter Lazes, director of the Healthcare Transformation Project at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. If nonunion members aren't forced to pay fees for bargaining, that might convince some members to leave the union and “free-ride.”
“It would be a setback, a major distraction, if not a major hurdle for union empathy,” Lazes said. “Basically, the union would be required to defend people who are not paying dues.”
A significant amount of public health system employees are unionized, Lazes said, noting that a decision in favor of the teachers could have a major impact on workers at public safety net hospitals. He argued that it would hamper labor's role in aiding care-delivery reform.
“I think it would be real detriment, and I think it indicates an old paradigm that the unions are there to protect the members, even though they're now active in reshaping the industry," Lazes said.
If Abood is reversed, the court would essentially create a “right-to-work” law for public sector employees, said Michael Moschel, a partner in Nashville-based Bass, Berry & Sims' Labor and Employment practice. But rather than looking at this from a labor rights perspective, he believes the justices are interested in this case as it applies to Americans' freedom of speech.
“I think they're interested in First Amendment issues, and they're looking at this from a pure speech issue,” said Moschel. “Should someone be required to contribute to an organization that engages in political speech that they don't agree with?”
Moschel, who often represents healthcare organizations, said the reconsideration of the case is a positive development for public healthcare providers, who are being forced to fund unions “whose very purpose is to extract more tax revenue away from the taxpayers and take that money for members.” He said that, in his experience, unions will give up significant concessions if a management allows them to have a “closed shop,” where all workers must join the union.
The court ruled last June that home health workers who receive state funding for services but are otherwise employed by a private client do not have to pay fees to a union. That ruling did not apply to workers who are entirely employed by public institutions.
Labor leaders blasted the Supreme Court's decision to hear the case, saying that it threatens their members' ability to voice their opinion on workplace conditions. A coalition of teacher and service union leaders, including unions with healthcare workers, said the court is revisiting a case that threatens the working class.
"We are disappointed that at a time when big corporations and the wealthy few are rewriting the rules in their favor, knocking American families and our entire economy off-balance, the Supreme Court has chosen to take a case that threatens the fundamental promise of America--that if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to provide for your family and live a decent life,” the leaders said.
Some of the leaders whose unions represent healthcare workers included Mary Kay Henry, international president of Service Employees International Union, Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The union heads said the justices are revisiting decisions that have “allowed people to work together for better public services and vibrant communities.”
National Nurses United, the nation's largest union of registered nurses, warned a decision in favor of the teachers could jeopardize efforts to improve nurse safety and could cause worker pay to decline.
“The intended effect is to essentially bankrupt public sector unions, including many nurse unions that advocate for patient safety, by allowing members to enjoy all the privileges of union representation, including wage increases, health coverage, pensions upon their retirement, and improved working conditions, while avoiding any financial responsibility to help support the work done by their union on their behalf,” said NNU co-president Jean Ross.
America's Essential Hospitals, a trade group representing public health systems, wasn't immediately able to comment on the news. The high court's next session begins in October.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.