Among the causes most frequently cited for the dizzying rise in American inequality in recent decades — globalization, technology, de-unionization — one culprit is generally left off the list: the Supreme Court. But the justices (more precisely, the conservative justices) must be given their due. In cases ranging from Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, they have greatly increased the wealthy’s sway over elections — which, in turn, has led to public policies that have reduced taxes on the rich, curtailed regulation of Wall Street and kept workers from forming unions.
On Tuesday, the justices were presented with a golden opportunity to further increase inequality. The court heard arguments in Harris v. Quinn , a case testing whether home-care providers who work under a union contract with the state of Illinois can avoid paying dues that support the union’s collective-bargaining work. (Under the law, they already can decline to pay the share of dues that goes to the union’s political work.)
Home-care workers are hired by aging or disabled individuals and their families, some of whom are eligible to have the expense picked up by Medicaid. That arrangement means the home-care workers’ pay levels are set by the states — making both the state and the individual a worker’s employer of record.
Over the past two decades, an increasing number of states, acting as employers, have given home-care workers the right to vote on whether they wish to form a union. Home care costs states one-third the amount they spend for comparable care in nursing homes or long-term-care facilities. The wages won by those workers’ unions ensure less employee churn and better care, which is why disability advocacy groups such as the American Association of People With Disabilities have submitted amicus briefs in Harris supporting the union.
It’s no mystery why a majority of home-care workers in Illinois and many other states has voted to form unions. In 2012, the median hourly wage for direct-care workers hired out by agencies was $10.21. Such workers covered by union contracts in Illinois are paid $13 an hour and get health insurance. In Washington state, according to an American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees official, the unionized workers make $14.34; in Oregon, $13; in California, $12.20.
The eight workers who brought the lawsuit the court heard Tuesday don’t want to pay dues to the union that won them their raises, though I’ve seen no reports suggesting they’ve volunteered to give back this additional money and forgo health insurance. In the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education , the court ruled that members of public-sector unions were required to pay the portion of union dues that went toward bargaining and administering their contracts. Two years ago, however, an opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by the court’s four other Republican appointees, suggested that the court should reconsider Abood.
The effects of such a reconsideration could be far-reaching. If workers can benefit from contracts without paying even what it costs the unions to secure those contracts, those unions would suffer revenue declines that could render them toothless. Once their unions lost power, home-care givers — a group that is overwhelmingly female, disproportionately minority and almost universally poor — would be highly unlikely to get any more raises. Turnover rates within the care-provider workforce would surely rise.
Such a reconsideration could be of even greater consequence if Alito & Co. go further and rule that no member of a public-employee union should be required to pay the dues that go to securing his or her contract. With the decline of private-sector unions, public-employee unions have become the preeminent organizers of voter mobilization campaigns in working-class and minority communities, the leading advocates of immigration reform, the foremost lobby for raising the minimum wage and the all-around linchpin of the modern Democratic Party. A sweeping, party-line ruling by the five conservative justices in Harris could significantly damage the Democrats.
Whatever its effect on the nation’s partisan balance, a ruling that neuters the organizations that poor, working women have joined to win a few dollars an hour more would put a judicial seal of approval on the United States’ towering economic inequality. Well into the New Deal, the Supreme Court consistently overturned laws that enabled workers to win higher wages, helping to delay the advent of the middle-class majority that emerged after World War II. It now has the option to speed that middle class’s demise.