WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday dealt a setback to unions by ruling that in-home care workers in Illinois who are paid by the state are not similar enough to full-fledged government employees to be compelled to pay union dues.
The court held in a 5-4 ruling written by conservative Justice Samuel Alito that plaintiff Pamela Harris and others who provide in-home care for family members and others with disabilities were not public employees who could be forced to pay union dues to a public employees union.
The court's four liberal justices dissented in the case.
Backed by the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the employees had asked the court to upend a decades-old practice that lets public-sector unions collect money from workers who do not want union representation, so long as the money is not spent on political activities.
But the decision left intact the court's 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. That ruling said unions could collect such compulsory dues used for non-political activities under collective bargaining agreements.
"Abood involved full-fledged public employees, but in this case, the status of personal assistants is much different," Alito wrote for the majority.
Illinois law excludes such in-home caregivers from retirement and health insurance plans and the state does not assume liability for actions taken during the course of their employment, Alito noted.
"Illinois deems personal assistants to be state employees for one purpose only, collective bargaining," Alito wrote.
The National Right to Work Foundation lauded the ruling.
"We applaud these homecare providers’ effort to convince the Supreme Court to strike down this constitutionally-dubious scheme, thus freeing thousands of homecare providers from unwanted union control," the group's president, Mark Mix said, in a statement.
Harris cares for her adult son Josh Harris, who has a rare genetic syndrome and needs around-the-clock care.
In Illinois, as in many states, home-based personal care workers who assist the disabled are paid with Medicaid funds as state employees. The practice is meant to lower overall care costs by keeping disabled individuals at home and out of institutions.
For more than a decade now, home-based workers in Illinois have been represented by SEIU Healthcare Illinois-Indiana. The collective bargaining agreement between the union and the state provides that all such workers pay compulsory union fees.
Harris, along with other home-based workers, sued Illinois and Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, claiming that the compelled payment of union dues was a form of forced speech prohibited by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
A district court dismissed the case, citing long-standing Supreme Court precedent that mandatory union dues can be collected to support non-political activities. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago affirmed that ruling after concluding the workers bringing the case were state employees.
The workers asked the Supreme Court to take the case. That prompted the filing of friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the workers from several conservative groups, including the Cato Institute, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence and the Illinois Policy Institute.
Labor unions, the American Association of People With Disabilities and the state of California were among interests that filed briefs supporting Illinois in the case.