Tom Steward

Tom Steward is the bureau chief of Watchdog.org's Minnesota Bureau, a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is an investigative reporter focused on waste, fraud and abuse in government and has previously worked for WCCO-TV (CBS) and KSTP-TV (ABC) in the Twin Cities. Follow Tom on Facebook and Twitter.

On the docket but under the radar--for now

Posted by: Tom Steward Updated: October 24, 2013 - 1:19 PM

It’s a case that’s risen to the nation’s highest court with an important bearing on Minnesota and implications for here and across the country.  Yet it failed to make the docket of blockbuster cases published by most of the media earlier this month just before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013-14 term got underway—except for Reuters

Harris v. Quinn squeaked in at the last minute, just days before the new term.  The Illinois case focuses on whether personal care attendants who help Medicaid recipients can be required to accept union representation in negotiations with the state and forced to pay “fair-share” fees in lieu of union dues.  $3.6 million annually from more than 20,000 PCAs in Illinois alone, according to court documents.

Sound familiar?  The case was cited by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals as the reason for suspending Minnesota’s controversial child care provider union election, due to the potential ramifications of the Supreme Court justices’ decision.

“This is a case that is really under the radar, nobody knows how big of a deal it is.  So many in the media don’t even know this is happening,” said Jennifer Parrish, a Rochester day care provider named in the Minnesota case and one of the lucky few who will be in the Supreme Court chamber on the still—TBA day of the Harris hearing.

Not surprisingly the potential import of the surprise selection registered more immediately with organized labor.

“There is a long legacy of previous Supreme Court decisions finding that “fair share fees” – reduced fees that unions charge to non-members to represent them in collective bargaining – are fully constitutional.  If the Supreme Court rules any differently in the Harris case, it will abandon a position it has established and reinforced repeatedly,” according to a SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana statement.

Much more could be on the line than hundreds of millions of dollars in dues and fees, according to Reuters.

Attorneys say the questions presented in the case are nearly identical to those in the 1977 Supreme Court case that set that standard, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. The justices hinted in 2012 in the last union case the court heard, Knox v. SEIU, that they may be willing to reconsider whether the compelled payment of union dues infringes on free speech.

"Knox put into serious question whether Abood is still good law," said Marquette University law professor Paul Secunda. "Harris might be the vehicle for overruling Abood, making it more difficult for public unions to raise dues."Workers and Employers Face Off at U.S. Supreme Court, Reuters, October 4, 2013. 

Responding to last week’s rejection of its appeal to lift the Minnesota union election suspension, an AFSCME flyer said “this temporary bump in the road won’t derail our plans.” 

Unless an Appeals Court bump turns into a Supreme Court barricade. 

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