WASHINGTON – A recently argued U.S. Supreme Court case, pushed on the justices by the anti-worker National Right to Work Committee, is an even bigger threat to unions – and to progressives in general – than everybody realizes, a top Service Employees attorney who worked on the union’s friend-of-the-court brief says.

And, anticipating that the majority of the justices may rule against her union and against unions in general in the case, Harris vs. Quinn, SEIU is already considering new ways of approaching and organizing workers, adds union counsel Nicole Berner.

Berner’s warning came at a May 13 panel discussion at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. Panelists were scheduled to talk about the 1st Amendment – which guarantees freedom of speech – and campaign finance. And they covered several recent High Court rulings, including one earlier this year, that open the floodgates for unlimited flows of campaign dollars from corporations and the 1 percent.

The court uses the 1st Amendment’s free speech guarantee to declare that “money is speech” and let the cash flow.  But Berner said the justices may use the amendment’s right of free association to grant the Right to Work crowd’s demand: To bar unions from collecting money – even just money for contract bargaining and administration – from any worker.

“The Right to Work Committee and” dissident “home care attendants in Illinois said that by charging a fee for administering the contract, the union was violating their 1st Amendment right of free association,” she explained. Lower courts tossed out the case, saying the Right to Work committee had no right to sue, because the payments didn’t hurt that group.  But the justices took the case.  Illinois – the  “Quinn” in the case is Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn – and the feds want the justices to dismiss it.  The court will issue a decision by the end of June.

If the justices rule in the Right to Work committee’s favor, they would, in one stroke “turn all 50 states into Right to Work states” where unions cannot insert provisions in contracts calling for dues deductions, she added.  “By judicial fiat, Right to Work then becomes the law of the land.”  The justices would be saying “our whole collective bargaining system violates the 1st Amendment.”

As a result of such a ruling, unions would have to rely on voluntary contributions instead, and the track record of that road shows revenues fall drastically.  Though Berner did not say so, public sector unions in Wisconsin saw their revenues fall by half after Right Wing GOP Gov. Scott Walker rammed legislation through cutting off dues collections.

By yanking away the source of unions’ money, “This decision would weaken the entire labor movement and the whole progressive community, because of the strength labor provides to it,” Berner warns.

Her union, preparing for that worst case, says it leaves unions an alternative: Becoming a membership organization like the NAACP “where it could build power and people in the broad sense.”

“This case is pushing us faster in that direction,” she adds. SEIU is also changing to respond to the fact that “people don’t work in set workplaces any more and in one job for 35 years.  So we have to figure out a different way to be strong,” she concludes.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.