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Public higher education unions dodged a bullet Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a group of home health care workers who mainly take care of their own family members in Illinois don’t have to pay union dues if they don’t want to. Plaintiffs in the case, Harris v. Quinn, sought the larger goal of ending exclusive representation and mandatory union dues for public employees generally, but Justice Samuel Alito in reading the opinion of the court said that the ruling applied only to this special class of “partial-public employees.” (The court, in a five-four vote, said that requiring these loosely affiliated state employees to pay union dues when they didn’t want to was a violation of their First Amendment rights.) Alito indicated, however, that the longstanding precedents in favor of mandatory union agency fees for public employees were based on “questionable foundations” – which many observers took to mean that the court would be open to revisiting the broader issue of open union shops at some point in the future.

William Herbert, executive director of the Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining and Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said a decision that overturned the closed shop concept in the public sector more broadly would have “destabilized” labor relations and collective bargaining nationwide.  But, based on Monday’s ruling, faculty collective bargaining is not immediately affected, he said. Advocates of agency fees -- which are required in 26 states, including Illinois -- say that they protect unions from "freeloaders" who would benefit from but not contribute to their cause, and keep the unions on sound financial footing.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that while the court “upheld the importance of collective bargaining and unions to families and communities, let’s be clear that working people, who have aspired to the middle class and tried to make a better life for their families, have taken it on the chin for years. Stagnating wages, loss of pensions and lack of upward mobility have defined the economic distress they have experienced. Today’s decision makes it worse.”