Judge Tosses Lawsuit Challenging SEIU's Representation of Care Workers

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By Michael J. Bologna

May 16 — The Service Employees International Union will continue to bargain with Illinois on behalf of 50,000 home health aides and child care workers after a federal judge in Chicago dismissed a lawsuit fueled by two right-to-work advocacy groups, which asserted the exclusive representation law governing such workers is unconstitutional.

Judge Manish S. Shah of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois May 12 dismissed with prejudice a lawsuit challenging Illinois' statutory system authorizing exclusive representation by SEIU Healthcare in negotiations with the state over the terms and conditions of employment on behalf of home health aides and child care workers.

The workers in the action, supported by the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Liberty Justice Center, had argued a labor law authorizing this representation framework constituted “compelled association” in violation of the First Amendment.

Shah declined to interfere with state labor law in a case SEIU Healthcare has described as “Harris v. Quinn 2.0.”

The workers had essentially asked the court to take a step beyond the 2014 precedent established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Harris v. Quinn, 134 S. Ct. 2618, 199 LRRM 3741 (U.S. 2014). In Harris, the court held the same Illinois home health aides and child care workers weren't “full-fledged” public employees and could not be compelled to pay dues to a union recognized by the state as their bargaining agent (125 DLR AA-1, 6/30/14).

Right-to-work advocates have been looking for opportunities to expand the Harris decision since it was decided.

Associational Rights

Shah, however, found no conflict between the SEIU's collective bargaining relationship with the state and the workers' First Amendment rights.

“The state may not endorse taking fees from non-employees without consent, but its choice to listen only to an exclusive representative does not infringe on anyone's associational rights,” Shah wrote.

Shah acknowledged that the Supreme Court “may revisit its precedents in this area.” Until that time, however, he said, the workers’ theory “runs counter to the established principle that a state does not infringe on associational rights by requiring the type of exclusive representation at issue here.”

The bargaining rights of these nontraditional Illinois public employees have generated controversy for more than a decade.

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), currently in federal prison for a fraud conviction, originally signed executive orders acknowledging the two groups could seek union representation.

Later a law was enacted essentially codifying the orders, ensuring that home health workers receiving payments from the Home Services Program and workers receiving payments through the Child Care Assistance Program could seek union representation and then bargain with the state.

Subsequently, Libertarian groups have been using the courts to try to chip away at the statutory framework supporting these two groups of workers.

Appeal Planned

Jacob H. Huebert, a staff attorney with the Liberty Justice Center, said he would quickly appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

“We are disappointed that SEIU will continue to speak for childcare providers and personal assistants who want nothing to do with that group,” Huebert said in an e-mailed message. “The First Amendment protects the right not to associate with an organization against your will, so the state shouldn't be allowed to force the women who brought this case, who aren't even government employees, to associate with a government union.”

James Muhammad, a spokesman for SEIU Healthcare, said the union is prepared to return to court to defend workers' right to seek representation.

“We are obviously pleased that the judge recognized our right to represent the workers and we will continue to do everything we can on behalf of workers who need to have a voice in the workplace,” Muhammad told Bloomberg BNA. “We definitely do not expect the right-to-work effort to diminish from this decision, so we will continue to fight on behalf of the working people of Illinois.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael J. Bologna in Chicago at mbologna@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com