By Greg Stohr
The U.S. Supreme Court debated whether public employees can constitutionally be forced to pay fees to a union, weighing a politically tinged case with the potential to undercut the power of organized labor.
Hearing arguments Tuesday in Washington, several justices voiced skepticism about Illinois rules requiring union dues from people who provide in-home care for disabled Medicaid recipients. More than 20,000 home-care workers pay such fees in Illinois, totaling $3.6 million each year, according to lawyers for workers who filed the case.
Other justices suggested they didn’t see any infringement of the First Amendment rights of workers who object. Justice Elena Kagan said the arguments made by those workers would “radically restructure the way workplaces across this country are run.”
The justices are considering whether to overturn a 1977 decision that said public employees could be compelled to pay for union representation as long as they don’t have to cover the cost of political or ideological activities. The purpose is to finance the expense of union negotiations over pay and working conditions.
The dispute pits labor unions and the Obama administration against right-to-work advocates. About half of states let workers be forced to pay union dues even if they don’t belong.
The court separately heard arguments Tuesday in a clash over the rights to the 1980 Oscar-winning movie Raging Bull. The daughter of a man who worked with boxer Jake LaMotta on the screenplay is seeking to press copyright claims against units of MGM Holding Inc. and Twenty-First Century Fox Inc.
The rights of public workers have been a hot topic in recent years, highlighted by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in curbing collective-bargaining rights.
That political reality seeped into the high court debate. Justice Samuel Alito said the Illinois rules were enacted after the Service Employees International Union made a “huge campaign contribution” to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The rules are being challenged by eight caregivers, seven of whom provide in-home services to their own family members.
Justice Antonin Scalia hinted through his questions that he might agree with the court’s Democratic appointees and back the Illinois rules. He said mandatory fees prevented someone from becoming a “free rider” — benefiting from union representation without paying part of the cost.
“You’re essentially destroying not just the closed shop, but you’re destroying the ability of the union to get money even from the people” who agree with its actions, Scalia told the lawyer for the objecting workers, William Messenger of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.