The United States Supreme Court is expected to rule shortly on a case that could deal a crushing blow to unions representing public employees. The case, Harris v. Quinn, No. 12-861, concerns the lawfulness of Illinois’ statute requiring that home-based health care aides join or support financially a union designated by the state to bargain on their behalf, but its outcome could have a devastating effect on public worker unions beyond the state and home care service industry.

Harris began in July 2003, when the Illinois legislature passed a bill recognizing certain home care providers as “public employees” and designated a Midwest branch of the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) as the exclusive representative of those workers. Under the law, home care workers could join the SEIU; however, even workers who chose not to join still could be required to support the SEIU by a compulsory deduction from their paychecks, called a “fair share” fee, as a condition of being allowed to work as home care providers in Illinois.

In April 2010, a group of Illinois home care workers filed a class action lawsuit against the State of Illinois and the union arguing that requiring workers to pay union “fair share” fees as a requirement of employment violated their First Amendment rights because the state law compelled them to “accept and financially support a private organization as their exclusive representative to petition the State for greater reimbursements from its Medicaid program.” After the federal district court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago dismissed the case, the National Right to Work Legal Foundation (NRWLF) appealed to the Supreme Court. The NRWLF asked the Court to find that its 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that public sector unions can require the payment of agency fees in lieu of membership dues, so long as the charges were used to finance expenditure by the unions for collective bargaining, contract administration and grievance handling. (The NRWLF implicitly also asked that the Supreme Court to reverse the Abood in its entirety.)

The Supreme Court’s ruling could weigh heavily on the continued viability of labor unions in the public sector, which depend on compulsory financial support for their bargaining strength and political influence. Indeed, the potential losses for SEIU, which represents both public and private sector employees, may be significant. If the Court overturns Abood, public sector unions could face a nationwide right-to-work challenge, and with it, the prospect of weakened influence. (A right-to-work law guarantees that no person can be compelled, as a condition of employment, to join or not to join or to pay dues or similar exactions to a labor union as a condition of employment.)

We will update you when the Supreme Court issues its decision.