Political Implications Of Rulings On Union Dues, Birth Control

Jun 30, 2014
Originally published on June 30, 2014 2:06 pm

The Supreme Court ruled today that “partial public employees” cannot be required to contribute to union collective bargaining fees. State-supported caretakers are represented by unions and all are required to pay a fee, whether they want to be members of the union or not, in an attempt to avoid freeloading.

The suit came from Pamela Harris, who argued that her association with SEIU Healthcare Illinois-Indiana is forced, and therefore violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The Supreme Court also ruled that for-profit employers, like Hobby Lobby, cannot be required to include birth control in the health insurance they must offer workers under the Affordable Care Act, if the employer has religious objections.

NPR’s Ron Elving discusses the implications of the outcomes of Harris v. Quinn and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.

More Coverage


Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. The Supreme Court wrapped up its term with a bang today, issuing two major decisions. In one, they declared that Hobby Lobby, the national arts and crafts store chain, cannot be required to provide emergency contraception services to employees under the Obamacare law. And that's because of the owners' religious beliefs. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest was asked about the fallout from the ruling.

JOSH EARNEST: In terms of the political fallout, I'll let the political analysts out there make that decision. The president does, however, believe that there's a very important principle at stake, which is the president believes that women should have the freedom to make their own decisions about their health care coverage. And that interference by their boss for whatever reason, based on their religious views, or just their scientific opinion, is inappropriate.

HOBSON: The White House spokesperson speaking today on that Hobby Lobby case. And we'll get to that in a few minutes. But there was another decision today, as well, in which the Court ruled that some public employees cannot be forced to pay union dues. Here to talk to us about both cases, is NPR senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Ron, let's start with the union case. A home health care worker, Pamela Harris, sued the Illinois governor, Pat Quinn saying that these dues that she had to pay violated her first amendment rights. Give us some background on the case and tell us what Pamela Harris' argument was.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Pamela Harris is not what you would call a conventional state employee. She is a mother whose son, Josh, has a rare, genetic syndrome and needs to be cared for at home. Now, he could be institutionalized under Medicaid and have his care paid for, and have his care delivered by regular state employees, but the State of Illinois and some others have chosen to strike another arrangement for reasons that should be pretty obvious. If he's better off at home getting care from his mother, pay the benefits to his mother and have her deliver the care. And that's what was done, and has been done elsewhere. There are some 20,000 of these personal assistants in Illinois alone. So the benefits were coming directly to her and part of the arrangement by which the State set all this up involved her being represented by the Service Employees International Union, which was representing some of the other people who were providing Medicaid services. And they negotiate her wages with the State and the State determines how much she'll be paid and what her benefits are, and so forth. So, she is what the court referred to today as a 'partial state employee', although there are also laws in which the same arrangement is referred to as being a joint state employee. So, we're dealing with some nomenclature differences here, but essentially she is someone who is providing services that the State would normally do, under a much more personal sort of arrangement.

HOBSON: Well, and that's what often happens in these cases is it comes down to a definition of, in this case, a 'partial public employee', so what does this mean for unions in general. How broad is this ruling?

ELVING: For people who don't fall in that sort of gray area of partial or joint employment status, it really shouldn't mean anything immediately, and a lot of people thought, well this is an opportunity for a court which has been seen as somewhat hostile to public employees' unions, to really go after them and say that they can't compel people who don't want to be in the union to be in the union and pay dues. Maybe they can work something else out, or people can be part of the union and benefit from it, without actually having to pay the dues if they object to that. Well, there's a case back in the 1970s where the court referred to that as free loading. Essentially, an employee getting all the benefits of what the union negotiates without ponying up any part of the cost. And the court disapproved of that free loading. Back then the court decision was called the Abood decision and today it seemed that Justice Alito was inviting more challenges to the Abood decision, but he did not go ahead and invalidate it or overturn it.

HOBSON: OK, let's move on to the other case decided today - the Hobby Lobby case. Talk about, first of all, what the argument was that Hobby Lobby was making.

ELVING: Hobby Lobby is owned by the Green family. And the Green family pretty much owns all of it. And they make all the policies, and it's an unusual company. They don't operate on Sunday, they play religious music in the office, they encourage their employees religious impulses, and they objected to one particular part of Obamacare's mandate. They wanted to provide health insurance for their employees. They've always done that. But they didn't want it to include contraception coverage that included certain kinds of contraception that would involve an IUD or Plan B morning after pill, or things that they consider to be abortifacients. And as a result, they did not feel that they should be compelled to participate in this and they sued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the court has upheld their suit.

HOBSON: And, again, this comes down to, in this case, what a closely held corporation - they're calling Hobby Lobby a closely held corporation, meaning it's not a big public company, it's a private company, with just a handful of owners.

ELVING: Yes, that is correct. And it doesn't matter how many employees they have - they have 16,000 employees and there are some other closely held corporations that have very large employment and very large footprints in the economy. But they are only owned by a very, very small number of people and it is presumed by the court that that small group of people could all share a very distinct religious right which would be trampled if they had to provide contraception services to all those employees.

HOBSON: And will this case have larger implications for women who are looking for access for certain kinds of contraception in all kinds of work places?

ELVING: It could, of course, and it will be introduced into many arguments, but it is possible that the administration can extend an accommodation it's already made for certain church related institutions, like Universities, and if it does so, that would seem to cure this without forcing the corporation to violate what it sees as its religious rights.

HOBSON: NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent, Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Jeremy.

YOUNG: Let's get reaction to the Hobby Lobby decision. Luke Goodrich is Deputy General Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which argued the case for Hobby Lobby at the Supreme Court. And again, they won this victory, the court agreeing that this company doesn't have to offer emergency contraception coverage as required under the health care act. And Luke, we heard the cheers of your supporters outside the court room. There must be some celebration.

LUKE GOODRICH: We were very happy with the decision today. You know, the court's decision is a great victory for religious liberty and it shows that when somebody enters business they don't have to check their religious beliefs at the door.

YOUNG: This is the first time that justices have said that a corporation can have a religious view under federal law. But some here are wondering, could that in the future cut against your clients? Could a company's religious views be atheistic or requiring one faith's beliefs over another? There's a slippery slope question.

GOODRICH: Oh, of course, religious corporations have all sorts of beliefs all the time. You know, Starbucks will only buy fair trade coffee. Other corporations will only pay a living wage or engage in environmentally-friendly practices. And we generally think as a society that it's a good thing for corporations to operate on the basis of ethical principles. And here, the Green family did that - has been doing that for over 40 years, and the government was going to impose fines of over $400 million per year if they kept operating their business in accordance with their religious beliefs. So the court very sensibly said, the government can't fine a business out of existence solely because of its owners' religious beliefs.

YOUNG: Well, and of course some would say, fair trade is not a religious belief, but the two companies in today's ruling did say - both of them said they were willing to cover most methods of contraception, not those that they say can prevent an embryo from implanting. A couple of questions. They say that the morning-after pill does that, but NPR's Carrie Johnson reminds us scientists say that the methods these companies object to are not a form of abortion. It's way too early in the process. But also, there are 50 other businesses suing over covering contraceptives. Again, many of them accept most, but do you worry about the slippery slope there? Do any of your clients plan on going after birth control as well?

GOODRICH: Well, the court issued a relatively narrow decision today and as you point out, Hobby Lobby already covers 16 kinds of contraception, so every employee gets free access to 16 different kinds of contraception. And in this case, the question of the slippery slope actually works the other way. The State of Washington right now is considering a law that would force every business in the State of Washington to cover abortions, including late-term abortions. So every business in the State of Washington, if this decision hadn't come out that way today, could be forced to cover abortion, which would be deeply troubling to people who have religious faith and just to people who object to abortion more generally.

YOUNG: That's Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. They argued the case for Hobby Lobby at the Supreme Court - big win for them today. Luke, thank you.

GOODRICH: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.