- - Thursday, July 24, 2014


In its recent Harris v. Quinn decision, the Supreme Court sided with workers who don’t want to join “in-home worker unions,” and don’t want to be forced to pay them nonmember fees. The court’s decision was called “anti-union” and widely interpreted as endangering the existence of such unions.

Among those leveling the “anti-union” charge was Justice Elena Kagan in the Harris case’s dissenting opinion. The charge misses the point. These in-home worker unions aren’t real unions, neither in form nor in operation.

Justice Kagan argued that, if dues or fees are voluntary, workers will stop paying and take a “free ride,” looking to “get something for nothing.” She had it exactly backward. Before last week, workers were “getting nothing for something” — no gains for their dues and fees.

Real unions bargain with members’ employers. Not the Harris unions. They “bargain” with state governments, even though their members are not state employees.

Real unions represent employees, or workers. Not the Harris unions. Pamela Harris was forced to pay fees to the personal care attendant union, because she cares for her own disabled son in her own home.

Unions for in-home family child care providers are also covered by the decision. These providers are business owners, not employees. Their customers are parents of the children they care for. Some parents are low-income and pay with state welfare vouchers.

The union form of organization is so peculiar in this instance and has so muddled the “employment” status of personal care attendants and family child care providers that the court had to coin a new term, “partial public employee,” which acknowledges the only common denominator involved; i.e., that all receive some public money in one capacity or another.

Real unions negotiate binding contracts. Not these partial public employee unions. Real union contracts codify wages and benefits that the employer is bound by law to provide. The partial public employee union “contracts” are nothing more than expressions of intent.

Take the contracts between the state of Connecticut and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) unions representing that state’s partial public employees. The family child care providers contract states, “this agreement expressly reserves the right of the Connecticut state legislature to approve or not approve the funds necessary to implement the compensation and benefits provision of this agreement.” (Article 4)

If the legislature retains ultimate authority and discretion, why have a contract? Why “bargain” with the executive branch of government? Why have a union?

SEIU “bargaining” is a misleading artifice superimposed over governing legislative authority and action. Lacking real bargaining power, the SEIU operates like a lobbying organization, except it cannot admit this, because the law prohibits unions from using most dues and any nonmember fees for political lobbying.

Real union contracts provide job security. Under their Connecticut contract (Article 6), personal care attendants have none. “Consumers and/or Surrogates shall retain the right to: Hire PCAs; Supervise PCAs; Determine work schedules; Terminate PCAs at will .”

Real union contracts have work rules enforceable via a grievance procedure. Not the partial public employee contracts in Connecticut. The “Dispute Resolution” section of the personal care attendant contract (Article 10) reads, “No matter pertaining to a Consumer and/or Surrogate shall in any way be subject to the provisions of this Article.”

So why would any partial public employee voluntarily pay anything to the union? For what?

That brings us back to Justice Kagan’s argument about “free-riding.” For there to be “free-riding,” there must be something to “ride.” As the Connecticut partial public employee contracts demonstrate, these “unions” deliver nothing. As Connecticut further demonstrates, most partial public employees don’t join these “unions.” Just recently, the SEIU acknowledged that about 4,000 of the 6,500 personal care attendants in the state have not joined the union.

This is not to say that generally low-paid partial public employees don’t deserve and haven’t achieved gains. Indeed, in-home care is preferable to institutionalized care in many instances. However, gains have been, and can only be, attained by state legislative action, not sham union bargaining.

We’ll see whether Justice Kagan’s fears come to pass; namely, that partial public employees abandon these faux unions, or the SEIU is able retain and attract them when dues or fees are voluntary.

If partial public employees see the situation clearly, they will bypass the SEIU and go directly to state legislators to plead their case. If they abandon the SEIU, they won’t depart as “free-riders,” but rather because they’ve seen that these SEIU entities are fake unions that produce nothing to “ride.”

Red Jahncke is president of the Townsend Group International LLC, a management consulting firm in Connecticut.

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