Court lets mom decide for herself
When he was governor, Rod Blagojevich had a bad habit of going too far. Illinois still is dealing with the fallout from his illegal acts.
In 2003, the now-imprisoned Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich worked out a shady deal with a public employees union to designate mothers paid to care for their disabled children as union members required to pay dues.
It was a great deal for Blago and the unions. The Service Employees International Union collected $3 million-plus a year, while kicking back a share of that sum to the campaigns of Blagojevich and other like-minded politicians. But the arrangement, sleazy even by Illinois standards, was struck down this week by the U.S. Supreme Court as an unconstitutional infringement on the free-speech rights of those forced to pay dues to a union they don't wish to join.
There was considerable speculation in advance of the court's decision about the potential consequences of a sweeping ruling, even suggestions that the high court might strip public unions of their legal authority to compel employees to join and/or pay dues. But reviewing courts generally decide cases based on the facts before them, eschewing unnecessary sweeping mandates, and that's what happened here.
The court's 5-4 ruling is simple to understand.
Because the conscript caretakers were not state employees, in the sense that teachers and firefighters are public employees, they can't be legally compelled to pay dues to a union. In reaching that conclusion, the high court did not disturb a 1977 decision that allows public unions to charge "agency fees," essentially dues, to nonmembers for representing them in labor negotiations.
Union supporters were hoping for a decision that allowed them to continue to coerce payments from people like Paula Harris, who is a full-time caretaker for her disabled son. They defend the practice, claiming it's necessary to require those who benefit from union membership to pay for it, and there is a certain logic to that argument.
But even the most ardent union supporters would have to concede this case was a poor vehicle to defend that proposition.
Harris is among 24,000 caretakers in Illinois, none of whom is considered by the state to be legal employees.
Unions obviously play an important role in representing the interests of their members, negotiating a variety of forms of compensation for them, working conditions, etc. But Harris wasn't hired by the state. She receives no benefits, like vacation days or insurance coverage. There are no standards for her working conditions — the house where she lives. She's a mother caring for her son and compensated through the state's Medicaid program.
Given those undisputed facts, it's not hard to see why Harris and six other plaintiffs didn't see the logic of either joining a union or paying agency fees to one.
The decision is potentially bad news for the SEIU because it threatens a valuable revenue stream. But people must remember that all the high court did was allow caretakers the choice of whether to join the union. If the SEIU can demonstrate its value to caretakers, there's no reason it cannot continue to thrive. The shoe, however, is definitely on the other foot. Caregivers no longer can be told what to do; they are free to choose their own path.
Considered in the legal context, the court's decision makes perfect sense. Going beyond the legal to the corrupt political bargain that produced this case, it's the only appropriate result.