Harris v. Quinn

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  1. Can a State compel in-home caregivers to financially support a union to be their exclusive representative for collective-bargaining purposes?
  2. Since the State has failed thus far to designate a union to be a particular group’s representative, do individuals falling within that group have standing to bring their claim?
Oral argument: 
January 21, 2014

Under Illinois law, caregivers who provide in-home assistance to disabled individuals through certain Medicaid-waiver programs may be compelled to support a private organization to be their exclusive representative for collective-bargaining purposes. According to Illinois, the purpose of the mandate is to prevent inter-union rivalries that might hinder collective-bargaining negotiations and to prevent non-union members from “free-riding” off union members. In this case, the Supreme Court will consider whether compelled support for exclusive representation in this specific context violates the Constitution. Petitioners argue that forcing in-home service providers to unionize infringes upon their First Amendments rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of association. Respondents counter that the Supreme Court’s precedent allows the government to force public workers to unionize when there is a compelling government interest for doing so. However, the fact that the Supreme Court has granted certiorari on such a narrow issue has many commentators speculating that the Court may be intending to decide much more than is immediately apparent, including decisions that may have drastic consequences for the very future of labor unions.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

  1. May a State, consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, compel personal care providers to accept and financially support a private organization as their exclusive representative to petition the State for greater reimbursements from its Medicaid programs?
  2. Did the lower court err in holding that the claims of providers in the Home Based Support Services Program are not ripe for judicial review?



Petitioners in this case are individuals who provide in-home assistance to disabled persons in Illinois. Some of the petitioners operate under Illinois’s Home Services Program (“Rehabilitation Program”) while the rest operate under Illinois’s Home-Based Services Program (“Disabilities Program”). Both the Rehabilitation Program and the Disabilities Program are designed to permit disabled individuals to receive in-home care rather than being institutionalized. Both of the programs are also Medicaid-waiver programs, meaning that disabled individuals receive federal subsidies for the care and other services they receive.

Under Illinois’s Rehabilitation Program, disabled individuals may hire personal assistants (“PAs”) to provide services that have been approved by the patients’ physicians. The relevant statute stipulates that each patient should work with a counselor to create an individualized service plan that specifies the type of services the patient will receive and the type of services that the caregiver will provide. Illinois’s Disabilities Program operates in much the same way, with the relevant statute stipulating that each patient should work with a service facilitator to create a service/treatment plan.

In 2003, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich issued an executive order maintaining that, although PAs serving under the Rehabilitation Program are not exclusively state employees (i.e., they are also employed, at least in some respects, by their customers), Illinois should nonetheless recognize a union to be their “exclusive representative” for matters pertaining to the State (e.g., collective bargaining agreements). Illinois then designated Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois and Indiana (SEIU-HII) to be their exclusive representative and required them to pay union fees.

Similarly, in 2009, current Illinois Governor Pat Quinn issued a nearly identical executive order that targeted service providers operating under Illinois’s Disabilities Program. However, unlike Illinois’s designation of SEIU-HII as an exclusive representative for service providers operating under Illinois’s Rehabilitation Act, service providers operating under the Disabilities Program successfully defeated the efforts of two unions to become their exclusive representative through a mail-in ballot in October 2009. Nevertheless, as Petitioners point out, this executive order remains in effect, and Illinois could attempt to designate another union as their exclusive representative.

In 2010, Petitioners filed a class action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Petitioners argued that compulsory collectivization under the Disabilities Program and mandatory representation under the Rehabilitation Program—and, more importantly, the payment of union fees to support such activities—violated their First Amendment rights to freedom of association and freedom of speech. The District Court dismissed Petitioners’ claims and found that: (1) with regards to the Rehabilitation Program, Petitioners had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted; and (2) with regards to the Disabilities Program, Petitioners lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the State had not yet successfully unionized the service providers operating under the Program.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed. With respect to the Rehabilitation Program, the Seventh Circuit held that the Supreme Court’s precedent in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education controlled. In Abood, the Supreme Court ruled that non-union teachers could be compelled to support teachers’ unions for collective-bargaining purposes. According to the Seventh Circuit, since Abood, the Supreme Court has not changed its position that states may compel their employees to support “legitimate, non-ideological, union activities germane to collective-bargaining representation.” The real question in this case, therefore, was whether PAs operating under Illinois’s Rehabilitation Act were state employees within the meaning of Abood. In affirming the District Court’s decision, the Seventh Circuit found that Illinois exerted significant influence over all aspects of the PAs’ jobs, thereby making Illinois a “joint employer.” As a “joint employer,” Illinois had a compelling interest in preventing inter-union rivalries (known as the “labor peace” justification), and therefore Illinois could designate a union to be their “exclusive representative” for matters vis-à-vis the State without violating their First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in October 2013.



At first glance, the question in this case appears very narrow: do in-home caregivers operating under Illinois’s Medicaid-waiver programs qualify as state employees? If so, then in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, Illinois has a legitimate interest in promoting “labor peace” and can compel such employees to support union activities vis-à-vis the State. Quinn’s supporters argue that labor unrest can lead to widespread public problems, and mandatory support for an exclusive representative provides states like Illinois an effective means for addressing such unrest and preventing non-union members from free-riding off union members. Harris’s supporters counter that the First Amendment was intended to protect individuals from supporting political organizations that they oppose, and mandatory support for an exclusive representative creates counterfeit public opinion in support of labor unions and perpetuates their existence. The fact that the Supreme Court has granted certiorari in this case has many people speculating about whether the Court intends to limit or overrule Abood. Such a decision would have broad implications for the future of labor unions, since many representatives falling under Abood’s holding would no longer receive mandatory financial support and might even need to compete with rival representatives.


Petitioner Pamela Harris argues that, at the very least, Abood should be limited to its facts. In this respect, Harris draws support from amici who believe in a broader interpretation of the right to freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment. For example, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence contends that the First Amendment was designed for the very purpose of protecting individuals against mandated support for political organizations, and, by forcing Petitioners to support labor unions, Illinois is forcing Petitioners to support political organizations which they oppose. According to the Center, mandated support for labor unions not only causes Petitioners to lose their voices but also creates “counterfeit” public opinion in support of labor unions in general. Similarly, the Illinois Policy Institute contends that mandated support for labor unions causes Petitioners to directly contribute to the continued existence of something they oppose. According to the Institute, union fees give labor unions more funding to pursue political goals, and one such goal is to elect government officials who act favorably towards labor unions.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn counters that the Supreme Court’s First Amendment analysis in Abood is sound and that it cannot be overturned without affecting some of the Court’s other decisions. In this respect, Quinn draws support from several governmental entities that have a strong interest in preserving the current level of control that states have with respect to governing labor relations. For example, an amicus brief submitted on behalf of fourteen states and the District of Columbia argues that labor union fees and exclusive representation have been around since the beginning of American labor law, and Abood simply gave the states the necessary flexibility to adopt laws that Congress has long since authorized. Similarly, the United States argues that the First Amendment was not originally understood to impose restrictions on government employers and that, even after the 1950s when the Court first began to recognize such restrictions, the Court has always reserved a “broad zone of discretion” for government employers.


Quinn argues that Harris’s attempts to limit Abood ignores the government’s need to pursue compelling interests such as promoting labor peace and eliminating free-rider problems. Quinn’s supporters assert that mandatory support for an exclusive representative promotes efficiency in collective-bargaining negotiations and helps to prevent the devastating effects that result when state and local employees go on strike. These supporters cite to several well-known incidents of labor unrest that created widespread public problems (e.g., police strikes, public-teacher walkouts, strikes by public transportation, sanitation, and welfare workers) and argue that states like Illinois have simply responded to these incidents by adopting a collective-bargaining model that has already proven effective at the federal level of government employment. They also argue that mandatory support for an exclusive representative is necessary to prevent non-union members from “free-riding” off union members. One Quinn supporter extends this argument, contending that what is distinctive about free-riders in this context is that designated labor unions are required by law to go out of their way and represent the interests of objectors such as Petitioners, whereas no such duty exists to represent the interests of objectors in other contexts.

Meanwhile, Harris and her supporters argue that the interests advanced by Quinn and other Respondents are insufficient to mandate support for exclusive representation. For example, the Cato Institute contends that the “labor peace” justification was not intended to be interpreted so broadly as to justify the infringement of First Amendment rights. The Cato Institute argues that a compelling state interest must have some purpose other than to compel speech itself, and Illinois’s only rationale for mandatory representation is to facilitate advocacy on behalf of the very individuals who do not wish to be spoken for. Similarly, other supporters of Harris argue that “free-riding” does not qualify as a compelling state interest in other contexts, and even if it does qualify as a compelling interest in this case, the justification for free-riding is illogical when applied to individuals who oppose union activities.



This case concerns two Illinois programs—the Rehabilitation Program and the Disabilities Program—that allow disabled persons to use Medicaid funding to receive at-home care rather than being institutionalized. In Harris, the Supreme Court will consider whether the constitutional rights of homecare providers operating under these programs are violated by Illinois laws that require them to pay dues to unions designated by the State to serve as their exclusive representative. In addition, the Court will determine whether the homecare providers can challenge the validity of the Disabilities Program before the State has designated a particular union to represent them. Petitioners, Pamela Harris and others, argue that such laws violate their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association and that their challenge to the Disabilities Program is ripe for adjudication because of heavy costs that they will incur attempting to mitigate harm once Illinois succeeds in designating a union to be their representative. Respondents, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, SEIU-HII, AFSCME Council 31, and SEIU Local 73, counter that Illinois’s laws do not violate the First Amendment because they accord with the Supreme Court’s precedent in Abood, and the homecare providers’ ability to challenge the Disabilities Program is contingent upon the successful designation of a union to be their exclusive representative.


In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that a law compelling non-union public employees to pay union fees to an exclusive representative was constitutional. The Court reasoned that compelling employees to pay such fees would facilitate "labor peace" by avoiding workplace disruptions caused by employee support for rival unions and prevent employees from free-riding. Harris argues that Abood should be overturned because the decision runs afoul of core First Amendment principles by infringing on employees' rights to freedom of association. Specifically, Harris maintains that the Court mistakenly failed to address the First Amendment in that decision, instead using elements of the Commerce Clause to justify its decision. According to Harris, that decision cannot stand when it is squared against the First Amendment. In Harris’s view, there is no distinction between forcing individuals to associate with a union and forcing individuals to associate with a political advocacy group, which is a fundamental violation of the First Amendment.

Pat Quinn, Governor of Illinois, maintains that the Supreme Court correctly decided Abood and that it should not be overruled as Harris urges. Quinn argues that: (1) the Court’s decision in Abood is based on the Court’s decisions in Hanson v. Union Pac. Ry. Co. and International Association of Machinists v. Street; (2) both Hanson and Street were First Amendment decisions that upheld the constitutionality of agreements that required the payment of dues as a condition for employment; and (3) the Court has relied on Abood’s First Amendment analysis in other contexts to find that the First Amendment does not preclude the government from compelling the payment of such dues. Harris claims that because a number of the Court’s opinions explicitly state that Abood’s holding does not violate the First Amendment, Abood and its progeny should be entitled to stare decisis.

Alternatively, even if the Court declines to overrule Abood, Harris believes that the decision should be limited to situations where the government demonstrates that exclusive union representation is necessary and is the least restrictive means to prevent a workplace disruption. In 2012, the Court decided Knox v. SEIU Local 1000, which held that states may mandate association only when they have a compelling interest in doing so which cannot be achieved through significantly less restrictive means. Here, Harris argues that preservation of "labor peace" is not a compelling interest that warrants the government to mandate exclusive union representation. Harris insists that maintaining labor peace is a compelling interest only when the government is acting in its capacity as an employer rather than as a policymaker; here, the government is not acting as an employer given that it is not actively managing the homecare workers and given that their representation is not a matter of public concern. Furthermore, Harris contends that the goal of achieving labor peace can be realized through means that are much less restrictive than forcing all employees to associate with one union.

In response, Quinn claims that collective bargaining serves critical government interests and that even if the Court limited Abood’s holding to its facts, the union arrangement at issue here should be upheld. Quinn argues that the government has a legitimate interest in encouraging meaningful collective bargaining because insufficient training, worker shortages, excessive absenteeism, and poor worker morale all infringe upon the ability of the State to provide critical services in an effective and efficient manner. Therefore, Quinn contends, it follows that designation of an exclusive union representative to negotiate is appropriate in that such representation avoids confusion, prevents inter-union rivalries, frees employers from possible conflicting demands, and permits the employer and a single union to reach agreements that are not subject to attack by rival labor organizations. Additionally, Quinn believes that Harris’s labor peace argument is misguided. Quinn points out that, contrary to employees whose employment has less impact on the general public, employees whose employment touch upon a matter of public concern face limited First Amendment rights. Quinn points out that the government’s interest in promoting efficient distribution of its services has long enjoyed substantial judicial deference, even when First Amendment rights are involved, and the labor peace justification, therefore, is both legitimate and constitutionally adequate.


The Seventh Circuit held that the Disabilities Program claims were not ripe for adjudication because the State hadn’t yet forced homecare providers under that program to involuntarily join a union. In its decision, the Seventh Circuit held that the healthcare providers must first suffer actual harm before they can bring a claim in court. However, Harris maintains that this ruling was incorrect given the heavy costs healthcare providers would suffer in attempting to mitigate or avoid the harm of forced unionization. Harris argues that attempting to mitigate the harm by influencing the vote against forced unionization would compel homecare providers to spend money and time that is more than the law requires. Finally, Harris contends that homecare providers should not be forced to wait to adjudicate a claim that has such important implications for their First Amendment liberties.

AFSCME Council 31 and SEIU Local 73 argue that the Seventh Circuit correctly ruled that the case is not ready to be adjudicated. They maintain that whether or not Disabilities Program providers will be forced to unionize is contingent on the occurrence of a number of uncertain events, including the endorsement of the union as an exclusive representative by a majority of the providers and negotiation of a bargaining agreement containing details about fee payments. Because it is uncertain whether these events will occur at some time in the future, AFSCME Council 31 and SEIU Local 73 conclude that the Disabilities Program claims are not ripe for adjudication.



More than twenty-five years ago, in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that non-union teachers may be compelled to support union activities for collective-bargaining purposes. Now, in Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court will consider whether its holding in Abood extends to in-home caregivers operating under Illinois’s Medicaid-waiver programs. Quinn argues that Illinois’s system of mandatory support is consistent with the Court’s holding in Abood and that it serves the compelling state interests of promoting labor peace and preventing free-riding. Harris counters that Abood should be overruled or limited to its facts and that Illinois’s system violates freedom of speech and freedom of association. In granting certiorari, the Court may be signaling that it intends to revisit its holding in Abood, a decision that could have significant implications for both the sustainability of labor unions and employees’ First Amendment rights.


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