You Can’t Turn Private Workers Into Public Employees

Date: July 16, 2014

The recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Harris v. Quinn impacts Rhode Island laws governing home day care workers and owners.

The case involved an Illinois mom who took care of her ill minor child in her home. Because the child received public subsidies for medical bills, Illinois law forced Ms. Harris to pay dues to a public-employee union which ostensibly lobbied to increase public funding. The Supreme Court concluded that, unlike full- fledged public employees, quasi-public employees or private workers like Ms. Harris, who work for their clients or customers first and not for the state, cannot be forced to join the union. 

Rhode Island has a similar statutory scheme that requires home day care workers and owners to pay union dues or agency fees to public employee unions. But after Harris, the entrepreneurs who run a day care center in their home with one or two subsidized children can no longer be treated like public employees. Any dues or agency fees that they pay will be totally voluntary. The era of forced unionization based merely on government subsidy of customers or clients is over.

The good news is that home day care providers will now be able to accept subsidized children without fear of having to buy union protection in the form of dues or agency fees and without diverting a portion of workers’ pay to the union. And most importantly, low income parents will have a wider choice of day care options as more home-based facilities will be able to accept their children. And higher costs caused by additional union expenses can be avoided.  

Nothing in this ruling prohibits labor unions from forming and trying to attract workers, but it is hard for unions to attract members voluntarily. Even in Rhode Island, a strong union state, only a small fraction of the private sector workforce is unionized. The laws that the Harris case addressed were a sneaky way for certain labor unions, through their political allies, to expand their membership rolls. Fortunately those forced unionization laws are now considered a violation of the First Amendment free speech rights of private citizens and small business owners.     

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