The fight over unionization of child and home health care workers in Minnesota is still on. But one might think otherwise, judging from the cheers that rose from unionization opponents Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such unions could not compel “fair share” payments from unwilling home health aides.
We cheered the decision, too, but not because it necessarily ends union efforts to upgrade caregivers’ pay and working conditions. Rather, we think the high court’s action should be a prod to turn those efforts in a more constructive direction.
The Supreme Court ruling freed home health workers represented by an already established union in Illinois from mandatory “fair share” fees. In Minnesota, organizing to create such a union and a separate one for child care providers who enroll state-subsidized children is still in progress. Unions and their DFL allies, including Gov. Mark Dayton, have pushed unionization since 2011, but have been stymied at several turns by lawsuits and intense GOP opposition.
The high court’s decision won’t halt the Minnesota union push. So said the unions involved — AFSCME for child care workers, SEIU for home health aides. AFSCME awaits permission to proceed from the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had placed a stay on its efforts pending the high court’s action Monday.
But at a minimum, the 5-4 decision in Harris vs. Quinn will take some of the steam out of those efforts. It lessens the prospect of a hefty financial gain for those unions if their organizing efforts succeed.
It also removes the sting that those efforts otherwise would have inflicted on the home-based child care providers and health aides who want no part of any union. Before Monday’s decision, workers who object to a union could not be compelled to join. But they could be required to pay a “fair share” fee, capped by law at 85 percent of dues. (In Minnesota, AFSCME dues are $25 per month.)
The rationale: Unions are required to bargain for the wages and benefits of all workers in a job category, whether or not they pay union dues. Without a “fair share” requirement, workers would have a financial incentive to be freeloaders, benefiting from union negotiations without contributing to their cost.
The high court has upheld “fair share” fees for nonmembers of public employee unions since 1977. Many observers predicted that Monday’s ruling would eliminate them — and indeed, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court’s majority, offered arguments for doing so. But he didn’t pull that trigger, which could have dealt public unions a mortal blow.
Instead, Alito argued that home health aides — and, we would add, child care providers — are not full-fledged state employees. The terms of their employment are not fully dictated by the state governments with which unions propose to bargain on their behalf. Typically, only a portion of their income derives from state subsidies to low-income parents or disabled people.
Many care providers are small-business owners serving private customers. They relish their independence. Given that bent, it’s never been clear that Minnesota organizers would be able to muster a majority vote in a secret-ballot election, which union formation requires.
The Supreme Court’s ruling should be a cue for those organizers and their political allies to revise their strategy. They still can form a truly voluntary association of workers seeking to improve both their work and their compensation. Such an organization might not have collective bargaining rights. But it can be a respected voice calling needed attention to problems with the quality, affordability and reliability of caregiving in Minnesota.
For example, child care costs for infants and preschoolers in Minnesota are among the highest in the nation, a 2013 report found, even as low wages prevail among the mostly female child care workforce. A workers’ association could call attention to that paradox and recommend remedies that would benefit both workers and the children they serve.
Elsewhere on today’s pages, state Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger describes efforts already begun to upgrade the care provided by Minnesota’s home health aides. An association of those workers would make a positive contribution to those efforts, steering policymakers toward workable solutions to systemic problems.
Organizers of the push for caregivers unions in Minnesota have long said that their aim is better care for children and vulnerable adults at a fair price. They now have a chance to prove their sincerity by altering their approach without abandoning their cause.