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Is Harris v. Quinn Decision Preview of Abood Challenge?

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn puts a brake on an ongoing effort by organize labor to expand the definition of “public employee” to just about anyone who receives any form of government assistance, such as home care workers paid by Medicaid (a phenomenon I pointed out in a 2009 Cato Institute study on public sector unions; see page 9).

However, the Court did not address the issue of whether government employees may be required to pay union dues in the first place. Workers who aren’t union members but work under a collective bargaining agreement can be required to pay “agency fees,” which are essentially dues in all but name.

That would have required revisiting the Court’s 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which upheld a Michigan law, “whereby every employee represented by a union even though not a union member must pay to the union, as a condition of employment, a service fee equal in amount to union dues.” Yet, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Court’s majority in Harris, offers some strong criticisms of Abood that could well open the possibility of future challenges to it. Among them:

Abood failed to appreciate the difference between the core union speech involuntarily subsidized by dissenting public-sector employees and the core union speech involuntarily funded by their counterparts in the private sector. In the public sector, core issues such as wages, pensions, and benefits are important political issues, but that is generally not so in the private sector. In the years since Abood, as state and local expenditures on employee wages and benefits have mushroomed, the importance of the difference between bargaining in the public and private sectors has been driven home.
Abood failed to appreciate the conceptual difficulty of distinguishing in public-sector cases between union expenditures that are made for collective-bargaining purposes and those that are made to achieve political ends. In the private sector, the line is easier to see. Collective bargaining concerns the union’s dealings with the employer; political advocacy and lobbying are directed at the government. But in the public sector, both collective­bargaining and political advocacy and lobbying are directed at the government.
Abood does not seem to have anticipated the magnitude of the practical administrative problems that would result in attempting to classify public-sector union expenditures as either “chargeable” (in Abood’s terms, expenditures for “collective-bargaining, contract administration, and grievance-adjustment purposes,” id., at 232) or nonchargeable (i.e., expenditures for political or ideological purposes, id., at 236).

Just as importantly, Justice Alito points out that the Court in Abood approached the First Amendment issues relating to free speech as settled by earlier rulings that didn’t in fact settle the issue. One of them, Machinists v. Street, Alito argues, wasn’t a constitutional case at all, while the other, Railway Employees v. Hanson, was “a case in which the First Amendment was barely mentioned” (page 9).

Stay tuned.