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  January 26, 2014

SCOTUS Hears Case With Potentially Huge Consequences For Public Sector Unions

Jennifer Klein: Despite the legal precedent which established a union's right to require new employees to pay a fair share, it's alarming that SCOTUS would even take up such a case
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Jennifer Klein is Professor of History at Yale University. She is co-author with Eileen Boris of the book, Caring For America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow Welfare State (Oxford Univ Press). They filed an amicus brief in case Harris v. Quinn. She is co-editor of the journal International Labor and Working-Class History. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Dissent, American Propsect on-line (TAP), Labor Notes, and Democracy. 


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case that could have a profound impact on public-sector unions. The case, Harris v. Quinn, involves home health care workers in Illinois. And if the court sides with the antiunion plaintiff, public-sector unions would no longer be allowed to require employees to pay dues as a condition of employment.

Now joining us to discuss all this is our guest, Jennifer Klein. Jennifer is a professor of history at Yale University and coauthor of the book Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State.

Thanks for joining us, Jennifer.


DESVARIEUX: So, Jennifer, just briefly can you summarize the arguments of the case Harris v. Quinn? What is each side arguing?

KLEIN: Well, the petitioners, who are represented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, have tried to say that home care workers are not real workers; they're simply family members taking care of somebody who is disabled, and that when they're represented by a union, that somehow their free speech rights are being violated, because they're suggesting that these women are not real workers and this is not real collective bargaining, that instead what we're talking about is they're simply welfare recipients who are receiving a government benefit--Medicaid--which pays for the service, and that this is petitioning the government to receive that Medicaid benefit; and so the union, by claiming to represent workers, is interfering with their ability to petition the government. And so what this right-to-work group has done is they have tried to turn this into a constitutional First Amendment issue and ignore the fact that this is really about workers and labor law and workers' rights.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. You heard the arguments. Did you get a sense of how the court might rule on this case?

KLEIN: Well, I can't say how the court would rule. I would say what is surprising is that they would take this case in the first place, because what is happening here is the kernel of the case is about home care workers having collective bargaining that they engage in in the state with the state of Illinois. But what's happening is is the right-to-work people are trying to use this to kick open the door to questioning the collective bargaining rights of all public-sector workers. And those rights are based on a precedent from the early 1970s. And that is established law. That is a solid precedent. And so there is something pretty threatening about the idea that the court would take this on and use this as an opportunity to go back and revisit something that should be quite well established.

DESVARIEUX: What groups are actually supporting Harris this case financially?

KLEIN: Well, what they've done is--to begin with, we have the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which is a conservative group, which is essentially trying to eradicate unions and to strip away collective bargaining. And they found a couple of women who do this care work who happen to take care of family members, and they've just represented them as, oh, they are mothers taking care of their children being interfered with by the state.

But first of all, that does not represent the majority of the workforce. So it's a misrepresentation of who the workforce is.

But secondly, they are also heavily backed by a number of conservative think tanks--the Cato Institute, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Pacific Legal Foundation--and each of these filed amicus briefs in the case. These are all organizations that have shown they have a fundamental goal of getting rid of public-sector unions and undermining their ability to engage in collective bargaining.

DESVARIEUX: Jennifer, I want to talk about the counterargument here. And labor critics, they may argue that these workers shouldn't be forced to pay these union fair-share fees that this case is looking into. Essentially how would you respond to that?

KLEIN: Well, first of all I want to start with the notion that we have to accept that the kind of work that these women do is real labor. And I think a lot of what goes on here is a denigration of the fact that it's not real work and assuming that, oh, this is just the kind of task that mothers or wives or daughters should do out of love or obligation. And so that has kept--you know, that has made it devalued labor that is so low pay.

And so, through unionization they have managed to increase their pay significantly. In Illinois it's 65 percent in gained health insurance. And so unionization has made a big difference, not only for the women who do the work, but also for the people who receive the service, because now the labor market is much more stabilized.

And so what the state of Illinois has stepped in to say is actually this works in favor of our clients who we serve, whom we need to provide a service of home care for, it works for the benefit of the workers, and it works for the benefit of the state.

You know, we have a value now where we try to talk about the notion of consumer-directed care, which has very much come out of the disability rights movement, of community living, of staying at home rather than going into an institutional setting. And the only way this is possible is for the state to really stabilize the labor market. It can't--you know, otherwise it's such high turnover, because there were such low wages and such irregular hours.

And Illinois argued, look, this enables us to provide a better service, it enables us to recruit people who are good workers, it enables us to train them, 'cause they pay into a training fund through the union, and it enables us to reduce that turnover, which only--you know, it affects our clients adversely. And in this day and age we should take that seriously, that you actually have an employer saying that we think unionization really is to the benefit of all the stakeholders involved in this.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Jennifer Klein, thank you so much for joining us.

KLEIN: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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