Union leaders hit Supreme Court rulings

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Union leaders had sharp words for the pro-business tilt of two U.S. Supreme Court rulings issued on the final day of the court's year, June 30.

In Harris vs. Quinn, the justices said that "free riders" among home health care workers, if employed by both the state involved and the caregiver, did not have to pay even "fair share" fees to cover the costs the union representing them incurs to negotiate a contract or enforce it.

That ruling could let thousands of "free riders" in more than 20 states nationwide get away with being represented without having to pay for it. Dissenting Justice Elena Kagan predicted there could be a mass exodus of union members, too.

In the Hobby Lobby case, the justices said a closely held private firm's owners could invoke their "freedom of religion" to bar contraceptive coverage for female workers under the Affordable Care Act.  That ruling, dissenting justices said, would strip thousands of women of coverage and make them second-class citizens in terms of health care.

And dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned that the ruling is not limited to a contraceptive ban.  The justices, she said, opened the way for firms to invoke religious reasons to defy other laws, including minimum wage laws and equal pay laws.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka criticized Harris and said unions would nevertheless continue organizing home health care workers.  The Coalition of Labor Union Women blasted Harris, too, and called the Hobby Lobby ruling "discrimination against women and an attack on workers' right to basic health coverage."

Other union leaders offered similar comments:

Teamsters: The court "delivers a bruise to unions, not a KO," the Teamsters said of the Harris case. "A Koch-linked group brought the case before the court in an effort to take away collective bargaining rights for public sector employees. They failed."

Service Employees: Union President Mary Kay Henry, whose union organized and represented the workers in the Harris case, said the ruling wouldn't stop its organizing home health care workers nationwide.

"No court case is going to stand in the way of home care workers coming together to have a strong voice for good jobs and quality home care," she said.  "At a time when wages remain stagnant and income inequality is out of control, joining together in a union is the only proven way home care workers have of improving their lives and the lives of the people they care for."

AFL-CIO: "The fate of workers cannot and will not be decided by one Supreme Court decision" in the Harris case, Trumka said.  "The court upheld the right of public employees to have strong unions and workers will vigorously build on that foundation."

Communications Workers: The union pointed out that its state-employed home care workers in New Jersey, represented by Local 1037, have gone ahead and bargained a new contract that, among other benefits, provides additional pay for workers caring for children with special needs -- regardless of the court's ruling.

"This decision may affect hundreds of thousands of direct care workers from New York to California.  The case was brought by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, whose goal is to eliminate all bargaining rights for U.S working women and men. That's completely out of step with every other global democracy," CWA said.

"It's ironic.  Two-thirds of all U.S. public workers currently have no collective bargaining rights. The public policy question we should be considering is 'Why is the U.S. the only democracy in the world that is cutting workers' rights?'

"Direct care workers will continue to work to join together, bargain collectively and improve their lives," CWA concluded.

Teachers: AFT President Randi Weingarten said working women lost in both High Court rulings.

"More and more, it seems that the majority of the court better represents the interests of the Chamber of Commerce than it does the values and aspirations of working Americans," she said of Hobby Lobby.

"Workers' rights should not depend on whether their employer - while buying and selling to everyone regardless of religion - wants to limit their reproductive rights based on privately held religious beliefs. That this decision, which disproportionately affects women, coincides with Harris vs. Quinn, which limits rights of home healthcare workers in Illinois - the vast majority of whom are women - is a throwback to another age. Working families, especially working women, have lost here."

As for the Harris case, Weingarten said her union and others would go back to what brought them strength, despite the court: Organizing and advocacy.

"The Roberts court has consistently ruled in favor of corporate interests, while diminishing the rights of labor," she said.  "This court has built a record of weakening the rights of both voters and working families; no one should be surprised by this decision.

"America's workers have gone through the crucible of tough times and adversity.  That's why they formed America's labor movement.  Workers did not start off with their rights being protected by government. We had to - and still must - organize ourselves, our families and others to secure good jobs, great public schools, prosperous communities and opportunity for all.  While disappointed, AFT will do what we have always done: Redouble our efforts to empower and engage our members around the issues they care about and the work they do, and to serve as a strong voice for our communities, our democracy and opportunity for all."

AFSCME: President Lee Saunders said his union, which also includes tens of thousands of state and local home health care workers, would keep fighting for - and organizing - them, despite the Harris decision.  Doing so is even more vital, he said, since the number of people needing care will rise sharply as the Baby Boom generation retires.

"Today's decision does not dampen the resolve of home care workers and child care providers to come together to have a strong voice for good jobs and to give care to millions of seniors, people with disabilities and children," Saunders explained.

"The ruling did not hand anti-worker extremists the victory they'd been hoping for because the court did not revoke collective bargaining rights for public service workers or care providers. It did not eliminate existing contracts.  That would have been a fundamental gutting of the American Dream, but make no mistake - Justice Alito's opinion made clear that the relentless assault on workers' rights will not abate.

"AFSCME members nationwide will remain steadfast and fight for the simple rights and dignity that every working American deserves.  A court ruling doesn't change our obligation as proud union workers and it doesn't negate our obligation to keep fighting to restore the American middle class."

Photo: During a demonstration, a female worker reacts to the Hobby Lobby case, in which the justices said a closely held private firm's owners could invoke their "freedom of religion" to prevent women from getting birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act. AP

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