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High court to hear case vital to Illinois debate; Lake County woman's own case opened the door

By Mark Fitton | Jul 1, 2015


SPRINGFIELD — Pamela Harris of Lake County said Tuesday she was thrilled to hear the U.S. Supreme Court would hear the case of Rebecca Friedrichs, a California schoolteacher who doesn’t want to pay mandatory “fair share” dues to a union.

“I was delighted to hear it was granted cert” or accepted by the court for review, Harris said. “I do believe Harris v. Quinn opened the door.”

The Supreme Court’s announcement that it will consider the case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, comes on the one-year anniversary of her own case, Harris added.

Friederichs and nine other California teachers who are not union members object to paying what are known as “agency fees” or “fair-share” dues.

They argue that being forced to pay dues, even those supposedly directed only toward bargaining and contract administration, is a violation of their First Amendment rights. They contend paying even partial dues could force them to support a politically active organization with which they disagree.

Harris is the home health care provider for her adult son, who suffers from a genetic condition that causes severe physical and developmental disabilities.

Harris and seven other people in similar situations known as personal assistants successfully sued then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who had issued an executive order authorizing the state to recognize the Service Employees International Union as the “exclusive representative” for home-care providers like them.

They argued that although they received public-money stipends, they were not state employees and should not be forced to join a union or pay fees to cover a union’s costs.

Their case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the high court ruling 5-4 in June 2014 that they could not be forced to join the union or pay fees.

While the court held those caring for family were not state employees, the ruling did not invalidate mandatory union membership for traditional state employees.

But the court gave indications in the majority opinion in Harris v. Quinn decision that at least some members thought it might be time to revisit the 1977 case — Abood v. Detroit Board of Education — that upheld practice of mandatory dues in public-sector workplaces.

Harris said she hadn’t intended to lead a national effort when she made the decision to fight then-Gov. Quinn’s executive order.

To her mind, the money she and people like her received to care for people with significant disabilities was simply public money meant for the care of the disabled.

That any of that money would go to a union just struck her as wrong, Harris said Tuesday.

“The idea that the governor thought that one single penny should be siphoned away from these most vulnerable of citizens and put into the SEIU pocketbooks only to turn around and end up in campaign coffers was offensive to me,” she said.

Opponents of fair-share dues point out SEIU has been a campaign contributor to the tune of millions of dollars and thousands of person-hours to the campaigns of Democratic Illinois governors including Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn.

The Friedreichs case is relevant in Illinois considering current Gov. Bruce Rauner’s own efforts to end state collection of fair share dues on behalf of public unions.

The governor had challenged the practice in federal court, but he was dismissed as a plaintiff in March because he had no personal interest at stake.

However, federal Judge Robert Gettleman did not preclude three state employees who asked the court's permission to join the Rauner lawsuit from continuing their own challenge.

The issues in the Friederichs case and in that Illinois case are nearly identical, said Bill Messenger, one of the National Right to Work Legal Foundation lawyers who argued the Harris case before the high court.

He and other legal experts said the essential question is whether public sector employees may be forced to pay any dues as a condition of employment. The Friedrichs case is being watched nationwide, Messenger added

Labor leaders were not happy the Supreme Court accepted the Friedrichs case.

“We are disappointed that at a time when big corporations and the wealthy few are rewriting the rules in their favor, knocking American families and our entire economy off-balance, the Supreme Court has chosen to take a case that threatens the fundamental promise of America — that if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to provide for your family and live a decent life,” they said in a joint statement.

That statement included signatures of the leaders of the SEIU, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Unionized labor supporters fear a weakening of the Abood decision would essentially be availing right-to-work status to public sector employees nationwide.

Justice Elena Kagan acknowledged as much in her dissenting opinion in Harris v. Quinn:

“All across the country and continuing to the present day, citizens have engaged in passionate argument about the issue and have made disparate policy choices,” she wrote. “The petitioners in this case asked this Court to end that discussion for the entire public sector, by overruling Abood and thus imposing a right-to-work regime for all government employees.”

Mark Fitton is a reporter for Illinois News Network, a division of the Illinois Policy Institute.

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