THE BLOG

3 Reasons Harris v. Quinn Matters to All of Us

07/02/2014 02:58 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2014
  • LeeAnn Hall Co-Executive Director of People's Action and People's Action Institute
Phil Roeder via Getty Images

The Harris v. Quinn ruling on Monday was a huge step backward in the national effort to develop rights and protections for home care workers. It's also a clear call to action for all of us not to become complacent or take for granted the rights and protections that were hard fought and hard earned by the labor movement.

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that home care workers who do not wish to support the union that bargains on their behalf, can no longer be required to pay their "fair share" of the costs of collective bargaining with the state -- even though they benefit from that bargaining process.

The attack on these public sector workers dramatically undermines decades of state-level progress in professionalizing the home care industry and ensuring that the people taking care of our nation's grandparents and disabled people are paid decent wages, work in humane conditions, and can afford to take care of their own families.

This ruling is troubling for the home care workers it will affect -- most of whom are women and people of color. Many make less than minimum wage. It is also troubling for all of us who understand that workers are more able to provide quality care when they are treated with dignity, paid fair wages, and have a voice on the job.

This Case: Years of legal precedent supports collecting union dues based on the reasoning that all workers benefit from the outcomes of collective bargaining -- benefits such as increased wages, better working conditions, and more training opportunities.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW), picked up the case after it had been dismissed in District Court and the Court of Appeals. They expanded the case and argued that independent providers (such as home care workers) should be prevented from forming a union and that public sector unions be excluded from collecting "fair share" fees.

Behind the lawsuit: NRTW has a long history of anti-labor activities dating back over the past 60 years. NRTW keeps company with right-wingers like the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

But the ruling didn't give them the win they were hoping for -- public service employees still have their collective bargaining rights.

"That would have been a fundamental gutting of the American Dream," said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). "Make no mistake -- Justice Samuel Alito's opinion made clear that the relentless assault on workers' rights will not abate."

We all know this is only the opening shot in a battle to further weaken the rights of workers, of women, and of people of color. It is the latest attempt by corporations to keep working people from earning a living wage.

According to the National Domestic Workers Association, 23 percent of home care workers are paid less than state minimum wage. They frequently work long hours without overtime or breaks. Many work without vacation or time off when they are sick.

Three reasons this case matters to all of us: As baby boomers like myself age, many of us will hire home care workers and try to stay in our own homes for as long as possible. It is in our interest to ensure these workers get a fair wage and are treated with dignity, guaranteeing the quality workforce we will soon depend on.

Secondly, for those of us worried about the growing income disparities, we must see this for what it is -- a broad attack on public service unions that is meant to undercut the ability of all workers to organize for better wages and working conditions. If successful, it threatens to further shrink the middle class and push more families into poverty.

If that isn't enough, the reality is that undercutting public sector workers is part and parcel of the right-wing assault on the basic role of government, and the services that government provides. Services like WIC, SNAP and HeadStart that grow in importance as the gap widens between the haves and the have-nots.

This case is a blatant effort to dismantle unions, the very institutions that helped build and sustain the middle class for decades. It is an attack on the role of government and the services it provides. And it's an attack on the workers who work hard for already marginal wages to provide valuable services to our children, the disabled and the elderly -- yes, to all of us.

It is more important than ever to recognize the important role that labor unions play in our Democracy today. We need to stand together with unions to defend against these attacks and to protect the right of everyone to organize.