Although the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case is getting most of the attention today, the other major case the justices decided, regarding public-sector unions, could prove to be even more significant. And in both cases, the court had a common message: You’re on your own.
That may not be how the union decision, Harris v. Quinn, looks on first glance. Indeed, the conservative majority cast it as a conflict between the freedom of individual workers and the interests of a union, and they sided with the workers. But make no mistake: This case is one part of a larger assault on collective bargaining, and the majority even hinted in its decision that there would be more to come. So often, cases such as these come down to questions of power: who has it, who doesn’t and on whose behalf should it be exercised. And this court’s majority knows where power belongs.
Harris v. Quinn was a case about whether home health-care workers in Illinois, who are paid by Medicaid, would have to pay some dues to the union that negotiates salaries and benefits on their behalf even if they choose not to join. If they were allowed to become free riders, getting the benefits of union representation without paying for it, the union’s position becomes far less sustainable. But the court held that the workers’ free speech rights were violated by the requirement, since the union might say things with their money that they disagreed with (though none of those dues go to political activity, and they aren’t required to actually join the union if they don’t wish to). The court said that it could strike down the law because these workers aren’t state employees even though they’re paid by Medicaid; it also described the 1977 case that allowed the requirement on state employees as having “questionable foundations,” a signal that the court may be gearing up to overturn that case and deal a fatal blow to all public-sector unions.
It’s no coincidence that the public sector is the core of what remains of union power in the United States today. And taken together, today’s two decisions mark yet another step in a direction this court has long been moving: toward more power in corporate hands, and less for ordinary people.
One does begin to wonder where the court sees any limits on corporate power at all. In Citizens United, the court ruled that corporations have free speech rights that enable them to spend all they want to influence the political process. In Hobby Lobby, the court ruled that corporations have religious rights that trump the rights of their employees and allow the corporation to pick which laws it would like to follow and which it would like to ignore. The decision extends the corporation’s control over its employees’ lives beyond what happens when they’re working, beyond even things they do that could affect their work, to a purely private arena that touches on their employment only because that’s where they’re getting their health insurance.
And as Harris v. Quinn shows, the court’s conservatives become concerned about workers and their rights only when some subset of workers is seeking to undermine unions, which exist to equalize the power imbalance between employers and employees.
In other words, both these cases are about power, and this Supreme Court is determined that it be moved more and more into the hands of those who already have it. And you can bet there’s more to come.