Case Update: Public Union Dues

Harris v. Quinn, Slip Opinion No. 11-681.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that some public unions may not charge dues to non-members. In a 5-4 vote along political lines, the Court reasoned that charging dues in that manner violates the First Amendment rights of nonmembers who disagree with the unions’ positions on various issues. A copy of the decision can be found here.

The decision, however, is limited and will not impact most public employee unions. The decision is limited to those unions governing “partial-public employees,” as opposed to full-fledged public employees. The decision also does not affect private-employee unions.

The Harris case involved home health aides paid with Medicaid funds administered by the State of Illinois to provide services to elderly and other home-bound patients. The State passed legislation making the workers state employees for purposes of collective bargaining. Workers who decided not to join the union still had to pay a “fair share” portion of dues to cover bargaining and administrative costs.

“Fair share” dues have been around for many years and are common. About half of states require fair share dues, which have been upheld as valid as long as the money is not spent on lobbying activities. The dues are sometimes called “agency fees” or “representative fees.”

Unions claim that non-union members would get a free ride if they did not pay their fair share of dues. Unions argue their activities benefit members and non-members alike by improving working conditions and negotiating better compensation. If fair-share dues are voided, unions claim they would have to raise dues to their other members, who would likely leave the union since they would be paying higher dues with no added benefits and non-members would not have to pay anything.

In this case, the Court found these reasons did not constitute a “compelling state interest” that justified imposing dues on non-member home health aides.

If you have any questions about this case, or about labor relations in general, feel free to call Kevin Frank at (513) 852-6000.

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    James B. Harrison

    James Harrison practices in the firm’s Business Law Practice Area. He has represented and counseled hundreds of businesses and organizations, including start-ups and emerging growth companies in all aspects of business law, including mergers, acquisitions, sale or other equity events as well as strategy around operations, funding, and exit.

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