WASHINGTON An Illinois healthcare worker's legal
challenge of mandatory union dues from public employees reaches
a climax on Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court is due to rule in
the case at the final session of its nine-month term.
If the justices agree with the sweeping argument made by
home healthcare worker Pamela Harris that compulsory union dues
are forced association and speech prohibited by the U.S.
Constitution's First Amendment, it would essentially establish a
national right-to-work law and deliver a blow to public employee
The case, Harris v. Quinn, seeks to upend the decades-old
practice of including so-called fair-share, agency or
union-security clauses in collective bargaining agreements.
Such provisions require public-sector employees to pay the
portion of union dues covering non-political activities such as
contract negotiations. Union-represented public employees can
already opt out of paying dues that finance political
In the case, argued in January, the justices could revisit
the high court's 1977 decision affirming mandatory public-sector
union dues. Harris is backed by the anti-union National Right to
Work Legal Defense Foundation.
Harvard Law School professor Benjamin Sachs said that if the
perception holds that the Supreme Court saves blockbuster
opinions for the end, it will mean a union loss.
"If the union wins, it means the Supreme Court is affirming
longstanding precedent. That is less of a 'blockbuster' kind of
opinion than overturning longstanding precedent," Sachs said.
Speculation has grown in recent days that the opinion will
be written by Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative appointee of
President George W. Bush who joined the bench in 2006.
The Supreme Court typically distributes its opinions evenly
across terms, and often across months. Harris v. Quinn was
argued in January and is the only case outstanding from that
month. Alito is the only justice who has not authored a January
If Alito is writing for the majority in Harris v. Quinn, it
could also signal a loss for labor, experts said.
Alito "basically invited a constitutional challenge to all
agency fees in the public sector" in Knox v. Service Employees
International Union, a case the court decided last term on very
narrow terms, said Professor Samuel Bagenstos of the University
of Michigan Law School.
"Alito suggested that in a later case, the court might
constitutionalize the right to work in the public sector and
that's something the court has been asked to do in this case,"
But experts said it was impossible to know exactly what the
court was thinking. There could be multiple minority and no
majority opinions; the case could be decided narrowly - or not
decided at all, they said.
"There could be all kinds of internal dynamics going on in
the court," Bagenstos said.
The case is Pamela Harris, et al v. Pat Quinn, Governor of
Illinois, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-681.