What’s at Stake in Harris v. Quinn

The Supreme Court is about to issue a decision on a case that could hit working people—especially working women—right in the paycheck. Harris v. Quinn is about isolating individual workers so they are weak and unable to protect themselves in a labor market that fails to reward their hard work. By weakening the unions that have organized home care workers, given them a voice, and helped them win wage and benefit increases that are lifting many of them out of poverty, Harris v. Quinn could block the road to economic opportunity for a largely female, economically disadvantaged workforce. Right-wing groups want the public to think Harris v. Quinn is as a case about freedom of speech and association; they pretend it is about protection of the individual—but how does it protect an individual if the end result is a smaller paycheck?

American workers, by and large, have suffered from stagnant wages for decades. At the same time, the percent of working Americans in unions or covered by union contracts has been falling. Studies suggest that a substantial part of this wage stagnation is the result of eroded unionization, as fewer workers, both union and nonunion, benefit from the unions’ ability to improve wage standards in particular industries and occupations. The consequence: profits have reached historic highs, CEO pay is in the stratosphere, but workers are not sharing in the nation’s ever-increasing wealth.

Almost anything that worsens these trends ought to be avoided, including anything that weakens unions or makes it harder for workers to bargain successfully. Americans need a raise: more pay for the work they do, better benefits, and more regular hours, and they need help in getting it. On their own, the ability of individual Walmart cashiers, for example, or Amazon’s warehouse workers to get a raise is negligible. But collectively, if they can join together and bargain as a group, they would have a chance to exert enough leverage to make the companies listen to their demands. The players in the NFL, MLB and NBA all know that what they have won had to be wrested from management.

What’s true for the NBA’s Tim Duncan and other top athletes is a thousand times more so for home care workers. Before unions found a way to organize them, home care workers were treated as independent contractors employed by the people in whose homes they worked. Their pay was effectively set by state or county governments that set the reimbursement rate for home care services. And the pay was usually no more than the minimum wage.

That began to change in the 1990s when the Service Employees International Union persuaded the California legislature to create entities in each county to serve as the employer of record for the workers delivering home care under state- reimbursed programs. Once they had an employer to bargain with, the home care workers formed a union and began bargaining for higher wages. The idea spread to other states, and home care workers in Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington and elsewhere have formed unions and bargained contracts that pay well above the minimum wage, deliver health benefits and training, and have procedures to protect the workers from unjust or arbitrary treatment. To pay for their union and the bargaining it does on their behalf, the contracts (which are voted for by the home care workers) require dues, which are collected by the employer and forwarded to the union.

Without those dues, there can be no union, and the right-wing groups know it. That is why they are supporting the effort in Harris v Quinn of employees to get a free ride, to get the benefits of the union’s work without having to contribute to its finances. They know that with enough free riders, the unions won’t be effective, either as bargaining agents or as a political force. The goal of the right-wing groups, which the Court’s decision could advance, is an atomized workforce incapable of organizing to fight back against stagnant wages for average workers.