Policy: Labor

Union leaders having a hard time talking about Harris v. Quinn

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Supreme Court,Labor,California,Illinois,Michigan,AFL-CIO,Right to work,SEIU,Harris v. Quinn

Reactions from Big Labor leaders and the progressive left to the Supreme Court's Harris v. Quinn ruling Monday were constrained by their inability to directly address the facts in the case.

After all, it's not easy to make to a convincing argument that labor organizations should have the right to extract money directly from the paychecks of people who don't want to be union members in the first place, which is ultimately what Harris v. Quinn was about.

As a result, the responses to the ruling from people like AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry and Center For American Progress President Neera Tanden all claimed the decision was a blow for working families without ever mentioning that the plaintiffs in the case were eight people from working families that just didn't see a need to be in a union.

Those eight were not outliers either. An estimated 20,000 caregivers take part in the Illinois Home Services Program, which was at the heart of the case. That's according to SEIU, which represents them. (Other sources put the figure at 26,000). About 8,000 of the caregivers are "agency fee payers," meaning that they have opted not to join SEIU and only pay it the legal minimum required by its contract with the state.

One can reasonably assume that a majority of these are people who just do not want to be union members. Yet giving those workers no choice in the matter of what groups they belong to is an integral part of Big Labor's agenda. Unions are not making it easy for workers even when they do have those rights. You cannot get much more anti-democratic -- little "d" democratic, to be clear -- than that.

The pro-union magazine Labor Notes inadvertently made an interesting admission about how widespread this situation is for workers in an article responding to the ruling:

Home care workers already tend to have a much higher rate of fee-payers than other categories of public sector workers. One reason is that it’s a challenge just to reach them, since they don't meet at a central worksite. It often takes knocking on workers' doors to ask them to join or keep them involved.

But when the alternative to membership changes from fee-paying to paying nothing, the incentives will skew even worse.

Consider SEIU's California long-term care local, which represents 170,000 workers, almost all of whom work in home care. According to federal reporting, nearly half of those, 81,500, are "agency fee-payers."

Losing those fees would be a huge financial hit. The local in 2013 brought in $50 million in dues and agency fees combined.

It doesn't seem to occur to the author that if almost half of the caregivers apparently do not want to belong then maybe the union shouldn't exist at all.

Consider another example, Michigan, which has a home caregiver program similar to Illinois' which is also represented by SEIU. In the first year after the state passed a right to work law, the SEIU local that represents the caregivers lost 80 percent of its members.

In a situation like these can the unions really be said to be the workers' voice?

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