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The Boston Globe

Business

High court lets certain workers avoid union fees

NEW YORK — The Supreme Court dealt a limited blow to labor unions Monday by ruling that some government employees did not have to pay any fees to the labor organizations representing them. But the court declined to strike down a decades-old precedent that required many public-sector workers to pay union fees.

Writing the majority 5-4 opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. concluded there was a category of government employee — a partial public employee — who can opt out of joining a union and not be required to contribute dues.

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Alito wrote that home-care aides who typically work for an ill or disabled person, with Medicaid paying their wages, should be classified as partial public employees and should not be treated the same way as public school teachers or police officers who work directly for the government.

The decision was a partial win for labor’s critics. But the ruling did not amount to a crippling loss that unions had feared. If the court had overturned the precedent requiring many government workers to pay union fees, it could have greatly reduced the membership and treasuries of public-employee unions.

Several plaintiffs were mothers who, helped by Medicaid, were personal home-care assistants to their disabled children and opposed joining the union.

Alito wrote that unions play such a limited role for “partial public employees” that these aides should not be required to pay union fees — indeed he wrote that such a requirement would violate the aides’ First Amendment rights. He noted that states often set the wage levels for these workers and that unions often do not bargain collectively for them.

The case, Harris v. Quinn, was brought by eight Illinois workers who provided home health care to Medicaid recipients. They asked the court to overrule a 1977 decision that government employees can be required to pay fees to unions for representing them and administering their contracts even if they disagree with the union’s positions.

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The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation represented the Illinois workers. It argued that most of what public-sector unions did was inherently political.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents the Illinois home-care aides, and the Obama administration urged the court to uphold “fair-share fees.”

At least nine other states, including Massachusetts, have allowed home care workers to join unions.

In other business-related cases before the justices, the court Monday:

  Said it will consider a dispute over the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s duty to try and settle charges of job discrimination before filing lawsuits against employers. The issue has riled business groups as the Obama administration has aggressively stepped up enforcement of the nation’s antidiscrimination laws.

 Declined to hear Google’s appeal of a ruling that it pried into people’s online lives as part of its drive to collect information for its Street View mapping project.

 Decided not to let the trustee working to recover money for Bernard Madoff’s investors sue major financial institutions for their role in Madoff’s massive fraud.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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