US Supreme Court to Decide Union Agency Fee Case

The US Supreme Court is currently considering a case on the constitutionality of union agency fees. The effect of this case on Maryland, and nationwide will depend on the scope of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The issue of the case at hand is whether a state may compel personal care providers to accept and financially support a private organization as their exclusive representative to negotiate improved working conditions, including greater pay. As described by ThinkProgress, the blog of the Center for American Progress, the current rule regarding unions charging agency fees to non-members is as follows,

Public sector unions operate under two legal restrictions: they may not require non-members to fund the union’s political activity and they must bargain on behalf of every worker in a unionized shop — even if a particular worker does not belong to the union. Thus, the union may not encourage non-members to join by bargaining for benefits that only apply to union members. To recoup the costs of bargaining on behalf of non-members, however, the union may charge those non-members what are known as “agency fees.” These agency fees are now under attack in a lawsuit known as Harris v. Quinn.

The Court could adopt a narrow holding in Harris, limited to personal care employees.  Or, the Court could choose to make a broader ruling about the chargeable activities for which such fees are collected and the manner in which fee-payers are treated after appropriate notice is provided.  Such a decision could impact employees throughout the country, but a decision on the treatment of fee-payers would not affect education employees in Maryland, because in Maryland any non-member is by default considered a fee-payer, and charged only the fee.

In the broadest possible ruling, however, the Court could overturn the Abood v. Detroit Board of Education case, which held that the collections of agency fees was constitutional under the First Amendment permitting exclusive bargaining representatives to charge non-union members for collective-bargaining, contract-administration, and grievance-adjustment purposes, but not for political purposes. Such a ruling is not expected, but if it came down, it could eliminate the current practice of Maryland unions of collecting agency fees from nonmembers.  Based on the analysis of one commentator, the Court is considering the overall issue of public employees and union support,

This seemed an unlikely case to even raise that issue, but raise it, it surely did.  The case only involves home-care workers who provide medical services for patients one on one, and the prospect that their activities might pose a threat to labor peace appeared remote indeed.  Several members of the Court, though, were insistent that this case raises very large issues about labor relations in the public sector — an issue that is stirring up a good deal of agitation around the country, especially in state and local government.

The Court’s opinion is due by June 30. In the meantime, union representatives in Maryland are anxiously awaiting the Court’s decision.

For more information, see this coverage from Think Progress, and SCOTUSblog’s case page for Harris v Quinn.