Harris v. Quinn and the Next President

Posted on July 5, 2014 by

The Supreme Court’s latest assault on the Labor Movement – Harris vs. Quinn – shows how essential it is for Democrats to win the White House in 2016.

The 5-4 decision stops unions from collecting fees from nonmembers who provide home-care services through a government agency.

It seems like a narrow ruling, but it’s a door-opener for conservatives to eventually starve-out public sector unions.  Under Harris, though workers receive the benefits and protection of a collective bargaining agreement, they have no obligation to help finance the union which makes that possible.

Unionized government employees – city, county, school district, state, federal, etc. – now comprise more than half of all union members in the U.S.  And unions with public-sector contracts will certainly move aggressively to sign-up nonmembers.

Nevertheless, imposing a “right-to-work” protocol throughout the public sector could be next for Roberts and Alito.  This would probably take more than one case and several terms.  The court’s future ideological balance – likely determined by the next president – will be crucial.

As expected, Harris has triggered interesting suggestions among labor academics and others for reforming how unions organize and operate.

Georgetown University’s Joe McCartin, for example, wrote after Harris that unions “need to respond now by building wider and deeper public support for a new, community-based approach to collective bargaining, support that can withstand hostile court decisions.”

He points out in Dissent that unions “are often only permitted to bargain around issues – pay and benefits – that make it easier for their opponents to portray bargaining as a win-lose proposition pitting unions against hard-pressed taxpayers.”  McCartin proposes what he calls a “common good” approach to bargaining which includes issues such as a community’s quality of life, corporate tax breaks, tuition levels, minimum wage, etc.

Good ideas from McCartin, many of which are already happening.  Substantial and remarkable strides have been made by unions in building broad-based coalitional strategies around economic justice and campaigns to raise wages for the working poor. The Los Angeles Labor Movement has been especially innovative and effective on these issues.

But that doesn’t remove the immediate and intense threat posed by the court’s current majority.

In California in 2012, unions mobilized to defeat Prop 32 which would have eviscerated Labor’s political clout in the state.  In 2016, the Labor Movement will again be fighting for its life.  Going all out to keep the Republican Right from gaining the presidency and carrying out its top agenda item:

Wiping unions off the map.

Comments (2)


  1. Vivian Price says:

    Thanks for writing about this important decision. I’d add that the court has targeted some of the most vulnerable workers in this decision, caregivers– most of whom are immigrant women of color. If this decision targeted teachers or city workers, there would be marches and rallies to protest the decision. The conservative majority instead focuses on caregivers who have a harder time speaking with a collective voice. The labor movement needs to build a community based approach, as you quote McCartin’s proposal, but it also has to educate white and middle class unionists to fight against racism and anti-immigrant measures and policies.

  2. lee sanders says:

    Lou: This is a very small number of health care workers who work nearly alone. They should be enticed to attend events where they can meet and bond with members of their bargaining unit.
    My indecent proposal: negotiate contracts that pay non-dues payers $2/hour less than full members. That would wake up and educate those few who don’t realize that the union has doubled their wages. If they don’t want/deserve the extra money, they can give it to charity. Tell me why this kind of proposal wouldn’t work?

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