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What The Supreme Court Rulings Mean For Unions, Religious Freedom

MICHEL MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're focusing today on the final major rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court this term. The court ruled in favor of a challenge to the Affordable Care Act by a privately held craft store named Hobby Lobby. Whose owners objected on religious grounds to offering birth control coverage for their employees, as required by the healthcare law. The court's decision will allow certain businesses to refuse to offer this coverage and in another decision the justices allowed some public sectors employees to opt out of paying union dues, even if they receive the benefits of collective bargaining. The court was closely divided along ideological lines, with 5 - 4 rulings in each case. We wanted to talk about both of these decisions and their broader implications so we've called David Savage once again. He's the Supreme Court reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Welcome back to the program, thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: And for perspective of the labor issue we've also called Steven Pitts. He's a labor policy expert at the Labor Center of the University of California Berkeley. Mr. Pitts thank you for joining us as well.

STEVEN PITTS: Thanks for having me on the show.

MARTIN: And were going to stand by - and ask you to stand by Mr. Pitts for a minute because are going to focus first on that Hobby Lobby case. So David, what kinds of companies can opt out of providing birth control coverage as a result of this ruling? I'm interested in this question of how broad it really is because a lot of analysts seem to disagree about that.

SAVAGE: Yes, so I guess we don't really know how broad it's going to be. I think the general idea is if you're a corporation and the owners have what they say is a sincerely held religious belief that they don't want to do this, they can opt out. So I think it's pretty broad, at least in theory. Practically speaking you can't imagine a lot of big corporations in the country that have a lot of, you know, let's say public shareholders and a wide Board of Directors, they're probably not going to say, hey this is not a good idea for business to be able to tell our women employees. But I think a lot of companies where it's a family, it's essentially a family run company or a family run, in this case chain of stores, yes they can if they choose to say, we're not going to offer this because it violates our religious beliefs.

MARTIN: So is this decision in fact limited to privately held corporations because I'm just trying to figure out how in a publicly held scenario, where a company's owned by the shareholders who may have a wide variety of religious beliefs, how is a religious sincerity test to be determined? So is this in fact limited to people - to concerns like Hobby Lobby which are privately held?

SAVAGE: Yes, I think that's right, it's a privately held corporation and even more so probably a family-run Corporation. 'Cause even some privately run corporation have a bunch of people who are the shareholders.

MARTIN: Do you anticipate other challenges to the law based on this ruling? I mean are there, for example other cases in the pipeline were people are waiting to see what happened in this case?

SAVAGE: Yes, two kinds. There are a whole lot of cases - by the way their still pending that are religiously affiliated institutions school, colleges, those are all still pending. But I also think, I mean, we don't know down the road, but I do think this sort of opens a new door. The court has essentially never said this before, so they have sort of opened this door to saying, that if you as the owner have some deeply held religious belief you can invoke that and say I deserve an exemption from the law.

MARTIN: And do you anticipate that there are challenges to other areas of the law beyond the affordable care act or do you think that that is specific to the affordable care act because matters of health and religion are implicated. For example, I mean, Hillary Clinton in a public address talked about, you know, what about people who have religious objections to blood transfusions, you know, for example, that's still a health area. Do you anticipate going beyond the health area are there challenges?

SAVAGE: Yes, I do think down the road, it's not going to happen immediately but I think in the next couple years you're going to see a lot more of these type of cases. 'Cause as I say, they've sort of introduced a new principle in the law because the law's always been that if you go into a public business, you've got to abide by the laws. That's what the whole principle of the Civil Rights Act is. If you go into business then you have to abide by the civil rights act. This is sort of heading the law in a different direction, of saying, well no, in some instances owners can invoke their religious beliefs and we don't know but my guess is down the road, yes there will be other types of cases, other laws challenged.

MARTIN: Let's hear about the other court decision in Harris v. Quinn. And this ruling the justices said home healthcare workers in Illinois who didn't want to join the union shouldn't be forced to pay dues. Just briefly again there's the question of whether this is a broad ruling or a limited one with other implications. David, tell us your perspective on this.

SAVAGE: Well, I think it's both. I think it has an effect immediately in this area of home healthcare. Because this was sort of a growing area, these were underpaid, very often underpaid poorly treated workers, who were working in people's houses. They were paid from Medicare funds but they were going to (Unintelligible) to take care of adult disabled people, who were living at home. The union went in, their wages have doubled over the last few years, brought them a lot of benefits, but, you know, a lot of people don't like unions and they had a few members who objected and so this I think will make it harder for those unions to organize home healthcare workers. In addition the court's opinion is full language questioning the whole notion of mandatory fees for let's say school teachers, public transit workers - all those public transit, all those public unions since the mid-seventies have been able to say, look if you're going to benefit from the collective bargaining, and that's the union (Unintelligible) you have to pay some fair share, everybody. The court's opinion doesn't overrule those precedents but Justice Alito has a lot of skeptical language that suggests down the road that's where the courts headed.

MARTIN: Stephen Pitts the court ruled that home healthcare were not ,quote, unquote, "full-fledged public employees because they were hired and fired by individual patients, even though they are paid in part by the state through Medicaid." Are there other jobs that this may apply to?

PITTS: Well, I think they go into the area of child care, they're very similar, that could happen. What you have here is a broad range of areas, Home care is one for adults, childcare's another. Were an attempt to provide better care for consumers, you begin to have this kind of quasi-public, quasi-private situation where the dollars paying the workers come from the state, while often times some of the initial interactions between the consumer and the individual worker, him or herself. And so all these areas you find a situation where this kind of duality exists and the Supreme Court's majority did set up this new category called, partial public employees.

MARTIN: Do you see broader implications for this case as well Stephen Pitts, based your analysis of the circumstances as well as the ruling itself?

PITTS: I mean definitely. It's very clear that Alito, really doesn't like the Abood precedent. What's governing this is the Abood versus Detroit Board of Education ruling back in 1977 that allowed for public sector unions to establish agency fee that would disallow individuals from receiving benefits from the union collective bargaining action, but not paying for those services. And Alito really said, basically that the ruling is '77 was a fault, was faulty. And so clearly he both said that in that particular case, Abood should not be extended but he open the door for future challenges to Abood, that in his mind hopefully will rule the entire case and basically gut public-sector unions.

MARTIN: What's a critical feature of this, Stephen Pitts, that you want us to focus on? What's the critical aspect of this case that you think has implications for the future? Is it the type of work? Is it the type of payment structure that governs the work? What is it that's relevant here?

PITTS: Well there's two important things. From the point of view of workers, it's very important to understand that workers need to come together to help collectively bargain to improve their conditions. And the basic dangers there is one of having a free rider. So in the case of Illinois, without the union the wages that those workers were receiving would be a minimum wage. Today in Illinois it would be $7.25 an hour. Because of the contract in December, it will rise to $13 an hour. A clear benefit to the worker. That couldn't occur without the collective action on the part of the workers themselves. To the extent that a worker could receive that benefits, not pay for it, they begin to opt out and weaken the capacitive of unions to operate in the interest of other workers and we begin to see a race to the bottom. That's one thing. The second important thing is from the point of view of consumers, 'cause once again the development of these homecare workers has allowed people, who might not normally be in institutions, to be at home, which is a positive thing. And we see this through higher wages, there have been less worker turnover and therefore higher quality of care for the consumers as well. So from both standpoints, you see an adverse impact upon workers and consumers.

MARTIN: David, Interesting, what we know about these eight plaintiffs? I mean do we know if - did they have just an individual antipathy toward union membership? they felt that it interfered with their free right of association? What was there, kind of motivation? 'Cause clearly, I think they're not denying that they achieved a benefit.

SAVAGE: Some of it is antipathy but some of them it's a very personal situation, I've talked to a number of them. Some of these are mothers who are raising their own, caring for their own adult disabled child at home. They have a child who's 30-years-old now, disabled and that person is working a home. And they basically think what good does it - they don't feel any connection to the union. You know, they work in their own home. It's not like working at a school or a transit agency, they don't feel any connection to the union, they say, I've got to pay fees, so they really just don't like the union. There's also the national right to work committee is willing to send in lawyers to fight these cases. So, If you have a couple of plaintiffs, you can take on a bit - you only need a couple of plaintiffs to take on a big union and make a big case out of it.

MARTIN: David, just give us - the same question I asked Professor Pitts earlier. Which is do you see broader implications or are there cases that this president might affect coming down the road?

SAVAGE: Well, I would agree with Professor Pitts on this that the big issue in unions is everybody has to be together. For the union movement to work everybody has to join and participate and pay. If you inject the principle into the law, that everybody has a right to opt out and not pay, unions really fear that that's the first start of crippling the unions. It wouldn't happen immediately but if you can undercut the principle that everyone has to pay their fair share it will really undercut the unions.

MARTIN: Just very briefly Professor Pitts we would have about a minute left. You know, the fact is that union represented a declining share of the labor force anyway. So, I think that some might argue that how could it really have that significant effect when it's a minority of the labor force now that's unionized, your thoughts?

PITTS: The issue isn't the union; it's a quality of work for the workers themselves. And we see with the rising concern of inequality we need to take steps to raise the quality of work for workers in our society and unions are an important strategy to do that. And so when we begin to erode the power of unions, you're actually eroding the living standards of a large number of America - Americans.

MARTIN: But you heard David Savage say that they didn't feel a connection to the union, so was there a failure of outreach or a failure of the union to make its benefits know to these workers?

PITTS: I mean unions can do better. As I said before though, without the unions there they would have received less monies and might have -actually given the situation - they might have had their family members in institutions themselves.

MARTIN: Steven Pitts is an associate chair of the Labor Center at UC Berkeley. He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. David Savage is a Supreme Court reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He was with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for speaking to us.

SAVAGE: Thank you, Michel.

PITTS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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