WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 along ideological lines Monday that home-care workers in Illinois do not have to pay dues to public employees unions.
The opinion by Justice Samuel Alito was a narrow loss for organized labor. It did not overrule the court's "agency shop" precedent applying to all public employee unions.
The challenge to the mandatory union dues, brought by eight home-care workers in Illinois, represented the biggest labor case to come before the court this term -- putting at potential risk the future viability of public employee unions.
For decades, the law has allowed unions to collect dues from all private or public employees they are required to represent. Those who object don't have to contribute to political or lobbying activities, but they must chip in for the unions' efforts in fighting for better wages, benefits and working conditions.
The home-care workers in Harris v. Quinn served individuals with disabilities through the federal-state Medicaid program. They argued they should not have to pay dues for the state's contract with the Service Employees International Union, even though the union is required to represent them and they benefit from its services.
The workers, who were represented in court by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, contended that public employee unions are engaged in lobbying the government, often on issues the workers oppose. That implicates their First Amendment rights because the union speaks for them.
The importance of the case to public employee unions wasn't lost on the justices during oral argument in January. A decision against the union "would radically restructure the way workplaces across this country are run," Justice Elena Kagan said then.
Justice Antonin Scalia had expressed concern that letting public employees bail out would deprive the unions of funds needed to carry out their legally required duties.
Going into Monday, organized labor had been batting .500 at the court this term. The court dismissed a case in December that threatened to strike down labor-management agreements that help unions organize workers in exchange for concessions.
In January, the court unanimously denied 800 Indiana steelworkers compensation for the time it takes to put on and take off protective gear
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