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Then-Sen. Barack Obama spends a day on the job with SEIU home care worker Pauline Beck.
As a presidential candidate, then-Sen. Barack Obama spent a day on the job with a home care worker.
The Supreme Court's decision in Harris v. Quinn, the case challenging fair share fees for unionized home care workers, is bad, but it could have been worse. The case involved the significant danger that the Court would take the chance to eviscerate all public employee unions by forcing unions to provide services for non-union workers for free; currently non-union workers covered by union contracts must pay a fair share fee to cover the costs of the representation they personally receive. However, the decision authored by Justice Samuel Alito is limited to undercutting home care workers specifically:
The Court recognizes a category of "partial public employees" that cannot be required to contribute union bargaining fees. [...]

It remains possible that in a later case the Court will overturn its prior precedent and forbid requiring public employees to contribute to union bargaining. But today it has refused to go that far. The unions have lost a tool to expand their reach. But they have dodged a major challenge to their very existence.

This means that teachers and fire fighters and the like maintain their existing union rights, but many of the most vulnerable workers have lost a tool for building power. The Economic Policy Institute's Ross Eisenbrey explained the stakes last month:
No one needs a strong, effective, well-funded union more than home care workers, who have long been at the bottom of the ladder in terms of wages, benefits, and respect at work. Historically, their wages were so low—minimum wage or less—they had nowhere to go but up. And beginning in the 1990’s, when they began to join unions, their wages did go up. Counter to the trend in the rest of the economy, home care worker union membership grew over the last 20 years, creating bargaining power they had never had before. The result has been improved wages, benefits, and working conditions.
Rising wages as home care workers have gained union rights have meant lower turnover and, as a result, improved care:
A study commissioned by the Washington State Homecare Quality Council and funded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found that (union-negotiated) improvements in wages, health-benefit access, and paid leave, and the implementation of a referral registry system, resulted in several statistically significant beneficial outcomes for consumers. Between 2004 and 2006, turnover declined by 26 percent, and the percentage of workers leaving the industry declined from 10.4 percent to 8.9 percent.
While the Harris decision carves home care workers into a category of not-quite-public-employees to leave fully public employees untouched, the decision makes clear that the conservative majority is hostile to the precedent allowing fair share fees for public worker unions more generally, so unions are not out of danger, in addition to the blow this case deals to organizing new categories of workers who have not traditionally had union rights.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Mon Jun 30, 2014 at 07:38 AM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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