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Trepidation over a union case before the U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument today in a case that has some labor activists fearful that decades-long protection under the law may come to an end at the hands of the conservative court.

The case, Harris v. Quinn, brought by home healthcare aids who do not want to join a union and do not want to pay any amount for the union’s contract negotiation efforts, involves the issue of “fair share” fees.

As explained by Lyle Denniston in this detailed analysis of the case:

When a union is named as the bargaining agent for a group of workers, it is under a legal duty to represent all the workers, including those who refuse to join.  Under what is called the “agency shop” theory, all workers are not required to join the union, but they are required to pay through their dues a “fair share” of the union’s costs in representing them in bargaining over benefits and working conditions.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, on appeal from the Seventh Circuit, over objections from unions and from state and federal government officials — raising the specter that the high court might be veering towards upsetting established labor law.

As NPR’s Nina Totenberg notes here:

In the end, what makes this case remarkable is that the Supreme Court for decades has allowed public employee unions, and has allowed them to require mandatory fair share fees for non-members as long as those who do not join the union are not forced to pay for union political activities.

But the current conservative court has not been enamored with labor unions, hinting just two years ago that it might be time to revisit its decades of doctrine on this issue.

“If they say you can’t have an exclusive representative union, that would be a stake in the heart of not just unions in the public sector but all unions,” Smith says.

And if the court were to say unions could not have a mandatory fair share contribution to a recognized union, “you’d have a serious free rider problem,” he says, because people “would have no incentive to pay their share of the costs if they can free ride on everybody else.”

The bottom line, Smith says, is that an adverse ruling “would substantially weaken unions.”

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