In Harris v. Quinn, a small group of health care workers sued the governor of Illinois claiming that an agency fee arrangement violated their right to free speech and free association under the First and Fourteenth Amendment. The workers argued that as personal assistants (PAs) under the Illinois Home Services Program, they should not have to pay an agency fee if they do not want to join or support SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana. The government argued that the agency fee provision, which allows for the collection of an agency fee from all PAs, promotes labor peace and the welfare of PAs, which contributes to the Program’s overall success. In its opinion released on June 30, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the workers and held that “the First Amendment prohibits the collection of an agency fee from Rehabilitation Program PAs who do not want to join or support the union.”
The Court’s opinion in Harris signaled an important loss for the labor movement, and particularly for home care unions. In its opinion, the Court first distinguished the personal assistants in the Illinois program from what the court refers to as “full-fledged public employees” by emphasizing the amount of control that customers exercise over the personal assistants and the lack of control exercised by the State. Using this distinction, the Court chose not to extend Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed. (where the Court upheld collective bargaining fees in a public workplace on the basis of private sector precedent) and held that state home care assistants cannot be forced to pay union fees because they are not full-time state employees. The majority further discussed the differences between personal care assistants and traditional public employees, and concluded that the Illinois program leaves the union little to bargain about. Justice Kagan strongly opposed this conclusion in her dissent, disagreed with the majority’s assertion that customer control strips employees of “full-fledged” status, and stated that it is through negotiations with the union that Illinois establishes the most important terms of employment for both union members and non-members.
The majority opinion discusses Abood and its applicability to the instant case while questioning its foundations. The Court criticized Abood but it did not overturn it. Accordingly, Harris v. Quinn does not immediately impact a majority of public sector unions or employees. The dicta concerning Abood is troubling, however, because it indicates that some of the justices may be willing to overturn it in the future. Even if Abood is never formally overruled, the Supreme Court has narrowed its reach and decreased its relevance.