Union dues case rooted in politics
The continued political power of public employee unions rests on a decision by the nation's highest court.
While a potentially ground-breaking legal case argued Tuesday before the U.S. Supreme Court goes to the heart of a complicated labor issue, its genesis rests in the relentlessly corrupt nature of Illinois' pay-to-play political tradition.
Here's the background: In 2003, the now-imprisoned Gov. Rod Blagojevich needed to keep his friends in organized labor friendly to his frenetic fundraising efforts. At the same time, unions representing public employees wanted more dues-paying members. Their mutual needs provided fertile ground for a classic political deal.
Blagojevich ordered that collective-bargaining rights be extended to home care workers who provide medical services for a fee paid by Medicaid; the result was that the Service Employees International Union ended up collecting an additional $3 million-plus in annual dues payments. Having burnished his reputation as a generous friend, Blagojevich rode labor's endorsement and campaign contributions to re-election and, ultimately, federal prison.
After succeeding Blago, Gov. Pat Quinn extended his predecessor's order to include home-based workers who provide disability services through Medicaid.
The state order unionizing the workers — many of whom care for family members — required they either pay union dues or fair-share contributions. Unfortunately, not all of those conscripted wanted either to be in a union or pay dues to one.
The resulting controversy ended up in the courts: The issue involves a potential reversal of a nearly 40-year-old Supreme Court precedent that held public employees, whether union members or not, must pay either full or fair-share union dues. If the court reverses this precedent, it would be a body blow to public employee union leaders who use their members' dues money to shape the political landscape.
It may not come to that. The high court has a tradition of settling issues on minimal grounds. It could uphold its precedent. It could rule in favor of the home health workers by finding they are exempt from forced dues payments because their work does not fit within the traditional union/management paradigm.
But the justices also could upset the applecart by ruling that it is unconstitutional to force home care workers to make payments to public employee unions whose political views they do not share.
The unions' political activity is the subtext to this debate. They are major players who endorse and actively support a wide variety of political causes and candidates. These dissidents are asking the court that they be excused, on First Amendment grounds, from financing candidates and issues they do not embrace.
This is an odd case. Is a mother who cares for her ill or disabled child a public employee if she receives money through Medicaid? If so, who is the employer?
The state insists that the caregiver is a unionized employee while simultaneously contending that the patient being cared for, not the state, is the employer. Who's management? Who's labor?
Only craven politicians and opportunistic union leaders would extend a traditional management/labor arrangement to a sad domestic circumstance. In that respect, Illinois is the perfect place to have concocted such a preposterous circumstance. How ironic it is that overreaching union leaders may have shot themselves in the foot in the process.
This issue is political dynamite. If public employee unions lose their ability to force dues payments from public employees, their political influence will be diminished. Once Wisconsin public employees were given a choice about paying dues, thousands stopped doing so, and the same thing could happen here.
That's why this case — which rose from the sewer of our state's politics — is so potentially significant.