Any discussion of the Supreme Court on Sunday's shows was limited to the Hobby Lobby case and whether it will come down on the side of some amorphous corporate right to force owners' religious views on employees. It's certainly a hot-button case, but the other, unmentioned case is the one with greater impact.
Though there's been virtually no mention of it in news reports or by teh pundits, Harris v. Quinn could deal a death blow to unions by defunding them.
The particulars of the case concern Medicaid-based home health care workers in Illinois. The battle dates back to a 2003 executive order by Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) which paved the way for the Service Employees International Union to become the exclusive agent representing state home health workers. Then in 2009, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) issued another executive order classifying home care providers as state workers, and therefore eligible for exclusive union representation. In 2010, a group of home health workers, led by Pamela Harris, brought a class action lawsuit alleging that the collective bargaining agreement that required non-members to pay union fees violated their First Amendment rights.
Unions fear the implications extend far beyond the home health worker profession in Illinois. Agency fees in principle are important to public employee unions because they're required by law to bargain for all workers in a unionized setting. If agency fees for non-members are ruled to be a violation of free speech, unions fear they would lose funding, become less effective at bargaining for benefits and, in turn, lose members.
A death spiral.
One labor official said such a result would bring about "the possible final destruction of the American labor movement." The official added, "It would cause the death not only of public sector unions and what's left of private sector unions, but also the Democratic Party," suggesting that the demise of unions would make Democrats more reliant on Wall Street money.
I've listened to the oral arguments in the case four times now and can't get a sense of where it will ultimately go. On a moral level, it seems wrong that someone would derive the benefits of union representation in the form of better pay and benefits while claiming that agency fees somehow violate an individual's First Amendment rights.
But this Supreme Court seems to weight First Amendment rights heavier than any other, with the possible exception of the Second, and libertarians are straining at the bit to undermine and perhaps destroy public sector unions.
Indeed, conservative and libertarian legal advocates see a golden opportunity for a victory against public sector unions. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief arguing, "There can be no question but that Illinois's scheme to compel personal assistants' association with, and subsidization of, labor unions flunks traditional First Amendment scrutiny."
Why the pundits are dodging this case, I do not know. But we'll know the outcome to both of them later this morning. Stay tuned.