Few pieces that you should be reading about yesterday’s terrible Supreme Court decisions.
We’ve long known that low-wage workers have very few rights on the job, that their bosses are able to interfere in all sorts of personal decisions. In this case, it’s the particular nature of the benefit denied that is worth exploring for a moment. Eileen Boris, author with Jennifer Klein of Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State, has noted that particular ideas of “intimacy and dirt” influence how we think about home healthcare workers and the work they do, which often involves exposure to bodily processes that are extraordinarily intimate. In the case of contraception, too, we see ideas of intimacy and dirt coming into play—sexuality is dirty, and intimate decisions can in part be influenced by one’s boss. By ruling, in theory, that the state cannot make an employer provide health insurance that covers birth control, or require that homecare workers pay the costs of their representation to the union, the court is in fact weighing in on the intimate relationships of thousands of workers.
Justice Elena Kagan, in her dissent to Harris, pointed out that the care provided by homecare workers is better when the workers are valued and paid better—things that have happened since they have had the right to union representation. In this way, she argues, the interests of the workers and the care recipients are not in opposition, as Alito’s opinion implies—they are actually aligned. The statement of Hobby Lobby’s CEO on raising wages indicates that Hobby Lobby, too, understands that workers do a better job when they are properly cared for. That includes, or should include, the right to make their own healthcare decisions, when it comes to contraception or anything else.
The conservatives pushing both of these cases would have you believe that these are cases about freedom—the freedom to avoid a union, the freedom to practice religion. And yet what they wind up being about is reducing power on the job for thousands of mostly women, mostly low-paid workers across the country.
Attacks on all workers’ rights often come first through attacks on those deemed less important workers. When we decide that birth control isn’t a pivotal issue because it only affects some workers, or that homecare workers’ loss is not a loss for us all, we leave the door open for the next attack.
And so, in a country where these feminized personal service jobs are increasingly the only jobs available, the court continues to rule that workers’ rights are less important than the bosses’, that protections on the job are a luxury working-class women can’t afford.
In Harris, the majority implied that it was not the objecting employees that were the true free-riders, but rather the union. The decision focused on the fact that hourly rates were set by Illinois law and there were significant statutory restrictions over what the union could bargain over. It highlighted the fact that the union received dues for its representation, but questioned what negotiations or grievance representation the union could deliver to employees.
In effect, this analysis places unions in a bind: any reasonable observer would conclude that the union negotiated with the state to set the terms of compensation, benefits, and other terms of employment, which are then codified into law. However, because the Supreme Court has demarcated this activity to the realm of lobbying, which is beyond the strict scope of representation, it concluded that the union is in effect collecting dues for doing little. The majority has drawn an untenable distinction and then complains that the distinction is not tenable.
Toward the end of its peculiar analysis, the majority articulates a new and dangerous standard or test, which surely will open the doors to future problems. “The agency-fee [or fair share] provision cannot be sustained unless the cited benefits for personal assistants could not have been achieved if the union had been required to depend for funding on the dues paid by those personal assistants who chose to join.” In effect, the Court is requiring unions to prove a counterfactual, that the workers could not have achieved the same benefits it received from the union through any other means. The Court concludes that “no such showing has been made.” However, it is not clear how anyone could make such a showing. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for herself and three other dissenting justices, proclaimed that the good news with this case is that the majority did not overturn Abood. However, if the majority’s new test is a prerequisite for fair-share agreements, it may have done irreparable damage to the balance created by Abood.