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Court’s union opinion draws mixed reaction

The U.S. Supreme Court was busy making news on Monday morning, releasing a pair of major decisions on the court’s final day before breaking for summer recess. Its ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, which centered on mandatory coverage of birth control in employer health insurance, made headlines across the country.

But it was the highest court’s other finding, regarding labor law as it pertains to public sector employee unions, that set off a cascade of responses from Minnesota political players on both sides of the partisan divide.

The case of Harris v. Quinn originated in Illinois, where a group of home care workers had challenged the mandatory dues they had been forced to pay as part of a collective bargaining unit. In a 5-4 ruling, the court ruled in favor of those plaintiffs, and found that forcing payment into a union’s coffers amounted to a violation of workers’ First Amendment right to free speech.

The majority opinion, which found the court’s four traditionally conservative justices joined by “swing” Justice Anthony Kennedy, could have an effect in more than two dozen states that currently have laws on the books requiring public sector workers to pitch in for union dues.

Among those states is Minnesota, where, during the 2013 session, DFL legislators passed a hugely divisive law that would allow personal care attendants (PCAs) and home day care workers to form unions. Under that law, daycare operators would be organized by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), while home care workers would become members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Progress toward holding the union elections was halted last fall, when an 8th Circuit Court of Appeals judge upheld an earlier injunction, which blocked the organizing effort pending the results of the Harris v. Quinn case.

Though numbers fluctuate in the turnover-heavy professions, the combined number of PCAs and home day care workers is thought to number above 20,000 in Minnesota.

As so often happens, the two rooting sides in the local matter had wildly different reactions to the news, as each proclaimed that the Supreme Court result had cleared the way for their desired outcome in this state.

Republicans claim vindication

Justice Samuel Alito penned the majority ruling, writing that mandatory dues to a labor union amounted to an unwilling worker being “compelled to subsidize speech by a third party he or she does not wish to support.”

The ruling’s potential importance in Minnesota was proven by the sheer volume of press release responses issued in the decision’s wake. In the morning, a slew of Republicans, including gubernatorial candidates, legislative leaders and outside messaging groups, heralded the ruling as a victory for free speech and a loss for heavy-handed unions.

As afternoon rolled around, it was labor’s turn, with the state’s largest unions criticizing the court ruling, while saying the finding should not stop the effort to organize collective bargaining units.

Major players in the Minnesota case, including lead plaintiff Jennifer Parrish, held a Capitol press conference to highlight the federal court’s verdict, and to call on Gov. Mark Dayton to stop his administration’s defense of the new law; the Attorney General’s Office had previously argued that the plaintiffs in the case did not have standing, as they could not have been injured by a provision that had yet to go into effect.

Parrish was flanked by a number of Republican legislators at her media event, including Senate Minority Leader David Hann and Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, an outspoken critic of the law who also put out a response statement earlier Monday.

“Today’s ruling is a welcome relief for Minnesota’s small business owners and hardworking families whose livelihoods were put in jeopardy by Governor Dayton and the Democrat-controlled Legislature,” Loon said.

Keith Downey, chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, went further, saying that he hoped the 8th Circuit court would overturn the law and “allow child care providers to continue working without fear of being bullied into joining a union.”

Unions pledge to move forward

But the unions took a more upbeat view of the ruling. In a pair of statements issued several hours after the decision dropped, SEIU and AFSCME each said the ruling was not a deterrent in their efforts to hold union elections.

In his release, AFSCME Executive Director Eliot Seide characterized the lawsuit as an “attack on workers’ rights … bankrolled by billionaires,” pointing out that the plaintiff, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund, had received funds from both the Koch brothers and the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune. Seide also said the ruling was not a deterrent in the push to form new labor units.

“Child care providers and home care workers will continue to have a strong voice for good jobs and quality care for their consumers,” Seide said. “This decision doesn’t stop them from organizing and collectively bargaining with states.”

Gregg Corwin, an attorney for the AFSCME union, said the Supreme Court’s decision would have no bearing on the existing challenge to Minnesota’s law. Corwin, who read the ruling shortly after its appearance, said the finding would only come into effect if the unionization vote was successful. At that point, those workers who did not feel obligated to pay dues, which are often called “agency fees,” could opt out of payment if they chose.

“In fact, if anything, this tells the 8th Circuit to allow us to go ahead and continue with the organizing process,” said Corwin, who did not want to speculate about when the appeals court might revisit the Minnesota case.

The law provides for elections only after the respective unions have submitted 500 signatures on a petition and, in a second obstacle, gained the support of at least 30 percent of potentially affected workers. Once that qualification is met, eligible workers would proceed to an up-or-down election to form collective bargaining units.

Corwin said he “strongly believes” that the court will lift its injunction, and said the celebratory statements emanating from conservative figures — by day’s end, all four Republican candidates for governor had weighed in — most likely came from people who had not read the decision closely, if at all.

Reached midday on Monday, Rep. Mike Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Center, the lead House author of the controversial legislation, said he was still learning about the possible impact of the opinion. Nelson, who has a background as a carpenter and a union representative, took issue with the court’s decision against mandatory dues, arguing that those rules prevent workers from gaining higher wages and benefits as members of a collective bargaining unit without paying into the system.

“That’s why they call them ‘freeloaders,’” Nelson said. “They’re benefitting from what the union does to raise everyone’s conditions, but they don’t want to pay for it.”

Nelson said he could not adequately explain the hostility toward the bill, which passed the House by a vote of 68-66, a margin that saw five moderate Democrats join the entire Republican caucus.

“It’s not forming a union – it’s allowing them to vote on whether they want to form a union,” Nelson said. He added: “I think the court can’t take that away, and I don’t think anybody else can take that away.”

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