U.S. Supreme Court Continues to Chip Away at Healthy Communities

WorkersToday the Supreme Court turned the screws a little tighter on working Americans who are struggling to get by. In its 5-4 decision in the Harris v. Quinn case, authored by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, the Court made it harder for home health care workers in Illinois to band together for a voice at work, and signaled they intend to do the same to all public sector workers when they get a chance.

Home health care workers are the people who take care of our parents and grandparents. They are usually paid so little they have to depend on public assistance to survive. They are most often women, people of color and immigrants. One of the reasons they are paid so poorly is that the state and private agencies that profit from their work have been quite adept at denying these workers the right to have a voice at work through a union. They have done this by assigning home care workers to a bureaucratic "no man's land" in which they are neither public nor private employees and thus have no real employer with which a union could negotiate about their wages and working conditions.  

The Supreme Court made that abusive limbo state the law of the land today, finding that the Illinois home care workers could not adopt a "fair share" requirement to ensure that all workers share the cost of union representation, because those workers are not "full-fledged public employees." The decision threatens to undo years of organizing to build a system of consumer-directed home care in Illinois that has proven successful in raising wages, providing affordable health care benefits, and increasing training. 

As the SEIU's Mary Kay Henry said in response to the ruling,

"The number of elderly Americans will increase dramatically in the coming years. States need to build a stable, qualified workforce to meet the growing need for home care--and having a strong union for home care workers is the only approach that has proven effective."

Even worse than the immediate impact on the rights of home care workers, Justice Alito signaled that, if he has his way, the Supreme Court will overrule the 37 year-old landmark Abood decision. If they do, that will make it illegal for any public sector union to collect "fair share" fees (equivalent to dues) from workers they are legally required to represent who decide to become "free riders" by not joining the union.

So what does this have to do with protecting the environment? As it turns out, quite a bit:

The case was brought by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an extreme anti-worker group whose funders include climate science denying fossil fuel billionaires like Charles Koch, and climate disrupting global polluters like the Walton family (which owns Wal-Mart).

The case is the latest in a decades-long attack by some of the worst polluters on the planet on the rights of working people to join together to improve their jobs and the quality of services they provide.

If this attack by on the ability of public sector unions to pay the bills and keep the lights on goes the way Justice Alito wants it to, the Court will soon add another link in the Citizens United and McCutcheon chain of cases that turn the free speech protections of the First Amendment inside out, using Orwellian double speak (corporations are people, money is speech) to clear the way for corporate polluters to seize even more power in our democracy.

That's why it is critical that those of us in the environmental movement stand shoulder-to-shoulder with public sector unions. Attacks on these workers are at the core of the corporate polluters' strategy to erode our democracy and distort our government's priorities toward polluters and away from the people. Because private sector union density is now so low (six percent), public sector unions are one of the last institutional bulwarks against the handful of billionaires pushing to drown out the voices of everyone else.

In the environmental movement, we are all about building healthier communities.  Among other things, healthy communities thrive on clean air and water; they have good, safe jobs that pay enough to sustain families; they are part of a functioning democracy, which includes the right to participate in and influence decisions that affect their residents' lives, regardless of their wealth, race, religion, or immigration status. We understand that reality.

This Supreme Court may have had its say today, but no court case will stop us from joining our allies in fighting for the democratic protections that allow people to build healthier and more just communities -- including a strong voice at work.

-- Dean Hubbard, director of the Sierra Club Labor Program