New Orleans The Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn, issued on a 5-4 ideological split, denying the union of home healthcare aides in Illinois the ability to collect agency servicing fees in lieu of full membership dues, will be crippling to many local unions, but not fatal. Regardless of the opinion rendered by Justice Alito, this is not a question of free speech or the coerced payment of individuals for the union’s political activity, it is flatly about denying critical resources to unions.
This is a decision I take personally having been at the side of Keith Kelleher, Myra Glassman, and so many others who built first United Labor Unions Local 880, then SEIU Local 880, and now what is known as SEIU Healthcare of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri & Kansas over much of the last 30 years of its history. In that period, the local was built from nothing to over 80,000 members with much of that growth over the last decade. For all the havoc this decision will wreck on local and national unions like SEIU and AFSCME, probably the one local most able to sustain the hit without losing a step will in fact be SEIU Healthcare, largely because so much of its history was spent in the push-and-shove of fighting each step of the way to raise the voice, wages, and rights of home healthcare and home daycare workers in its jurisdiction, and doing so in an “open shop” right-to-work environment.
Doing the math, if 880, as I still fondly call the local, was representing 20,000 homecare aides in Illinois, my bet is that only half or fewer of that number were paying agency fees. Keith constantly worried and worked to keep the number of full members close to the 50% mark for years and years because he knew that being at or over a majority would make a difference in winning the rights to exclusively represent the entire Department of Rehabilitation Services (DORS) unit through first consultation, then an election, and finally a contract. He labored over a regular repetition of direct mail, believing in that tool from his father’s experience – and lessons – from creating and running the big sweepstakes mailings. There were always phone banks, a service center, and crews of organizers chasing the workers and signing them up as members. Many of the states where the local works now are right-to-work states, so this is not a situation where they would have allowed themselves to ever get fat and happy. The 880 crew is simply hardwired differently as organizers to an aggressive organizing culture. They’ll take a hit here, and, yes, they might lose a couple of million dollars, but they won’t miss a step. For them, that’s only money.
On the other hand there are many locals who have benefited from the breakthroughs in places like Illinois where workers have gone from minimum wage to $13 per hour, from having nothing to winning benefits, and from being invisible to a regular presence in the halls of power, but have not shared the same culture and experience. The giant SEIU home care local based in Los Angeles, California claiming more than 100,000 members in this sector, never to my knowledge had more than 20% of them as full, dues paying members. Other locals with both SEIU and AFSCME throughout the state also won bargaining rights without the decades of patient organizing, monthly meetings, and lobby days that was the hallmark of Local 880. They will feel this decision acutely as it comes. This might have been the case in Ohio and Michigan as well, but Republican governors have already eviscerated those local unions and vacated bargaining rights.
Who knows what the Supreme Court understood about all of this. From what I have seen in reading the decision so far, not much unfortunately. Nonetheless, whether by design or accident, they and their allies have shrewdly attacked the one area of organizing that has been the signal accomplishment of our generation of organizers: informal home-based employment. It is here that we have added perhaps three-quarters of a million workers and achieved real density, particularly in the publicly directed areas of the work over the last 30 years, and it is here that the Supreme Court has tried to deliver a blow at the very heart of our future.
The wound isn’t fatal, we will bleed buckets, and it will hurt us for a long time to come, but we’ll look at more of the implications of this tomorrow as we try to puzzle out what a “partial public employee,” might actually be.