The Supreme Court has under consideration a labor case that could change a lot of things. The question posed seems simple enough: Can Americans be required to join organizations without offending the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of association? The answer, like the question, seems simple enough, too.
Rod R. Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois, is taking it easy today in a prison cell for taking bribes, wire fraud and conspiracy, but these were the least of his crimes. A decade ago, as a payment in kind to the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Blagojevich as governor designated thousands of home-care workers as public employees. This was a scheme similar to the nationalization of certain industries in banana republics such as Cuba and Venezuela, where workers are told: "You no longer work for your company. You now work for the state."
After Blagojevich was dispatched to a low-security federal prison camp in Colorado, the new Democratic governor, Pat Quinn, thought Blagojevich hadn't gone far enough. Mr. Quinn declared through an executive order that home workers taking care of the mentally disabled were state employees, too, for purposes of union organizing. That included Pam Harris, who takes care of her disabled son Josh. To get such home workers signed up for a union, the state gave union organizers the names and telephone numbers of these workers and told them to sign a card "so my boss knows I spoke to you." The signed cards were actually to authorize a union vote. If enough people were persuaded to sign the cards, they would be forced into joining the union. Mrs. Harris didn't want to see the money she needed to care for her son sent to a distant union boss.
Mrs. Harris sued Gov. Quinn, arguing that the political payback violated her First Amendment right to freedom of association. Her lawsuit, filed with the help of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, has the potential to restore constitutional balance to American labor law. Mark Mix, president of the foundation, argues that "forcing home care providers into union ranks is just plain wrong. We hope the High Court will protect the rights of Pam Harris and thousands of other care providers by striking down this constitutionally dubious scheme." We hope so, too.
There's reason to hope the high court will set things right. Justice Samuel Alito said in a recent and unrelated case that compulsory union fees "constitute a form of compelled speech and association that imposes a significant impingement on First Amendment rights."
Overturning the Illinois law would have consequences far beyond Illinois. Unions have forced millions of Americans to pay union dues as a condition of employment, and use those dues to influence politicians who then show their gratitude by changing the rules to require even more unwilling members to pay dues. President Obama won election and re-election with a mountain of cash provided by such union allies. Naturally, his solicitor general defends the scheme.
The Supreme Court has an opportunity to break this cycle of force and corruption, which would benefit everyone — and in particular help one mother struggling to take care of a disabled child.