The Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case grabbed big headlines this week, but a decision about public unions released the same day was arguably even more important. In that case, mothers reimbursed by Medicaid for caring for their disabled children objected to the requirement to pay fees to the union which represents home health care workers. The NYT has more:
The plaintiffs asked the court to overrule a 1977 decision that declared that government employees could be required to pay fees to unions for representing them and administering their contracts even if they disagreed with the unions’ positions. The majority declined to overrule that foundational decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, although Justice Alito voiced strong discomfort with it.
For union leaders, forcing non-union workers to pay fees to support the union seems reasonable. These unions, they claim, represent the interests of all workers in a given field whether they are members or not, and without union negotiations, both union and non-union workers would earn less. To let non-union workers free-ride is unfair, unions claim, to the dues paying members.
The Court ruled instead that a subset of public-sector employees—called “partial public employees”—can’t be compelled to pay the fees, and that home health care providers are included in that new category. The case was important to union advocates both because the health care sector has been a hot spot of unionization in recent years and because their power would have been greatly reduced had the Court overruled Abood. The plaintiffs seeking exemption from union dues, on the other hand, objected to their homes becoming a “union site.”
But the implications of this case go far beyond the immediate concerns of both sides. The real threat to the unions isn’t the loss of the fee income, but rather the progressive de-bureaucratization of state services.
Coming decades will put stress on the care-giving professions. The aging of the American population, for example, will create large populations in need of daily care, burdening our already thinly-stretched health care system. In response, the conventional left wants to increase the number of bureaucracies and government jobs, driven in part by unions and in part by ideology. The radical right, on the other hand, wants to cut all spending to the bone. Realistically, neither is sustainable. The blue model of service delivery is too cumbersome and expensive, and the voters aren’t ready to give up on the idea of the government providing help for those in need.
There is a third way: families and neighbors taking care of their own replace protected career union employees. This would be a welcome development, and should be encouraged. Instead of having professional government agencies providing home aides or similar services, the federal government could subsidize people doing the work en famille. This would facilitate a more personal and traditional way of providing for each other, cut costs and reduce the dead weight of bureaucracy.
This Supreme Court decision freed this class of care en famille from the burden union fees—the first, we hope, in a long-term trend to insource care-giving to the family.