Only 13 percent of Minnesota's 27,000 subsidized home caregivers voted to be represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 113. Thanks to low turnout, the state announced Aug. 26 that this was enough to produce what is being called a major union victory.
And it is a win, just in time for Labor Day, but the situation in Minnesota reflects the sorry state of organized labor in America as a whole. Unions have been cornered by a combination of their own irrelevance to most workers and a judiciary that increasingly prioritizes individual workers' rights over unions' ability to control them. This is why so many union locals have turned to schemes such as this one in Minnesota, the sole purpose of which is to skim money from benefit programs intended to help the poor and the sick.
Government employee unions have tried in many states to establish similar rackets. They have lobbied friendly state governments to let them impose themselves as the representatives of caregivers who are not really state employees at all. Various Democratic governors have thus allowed unions in recent years to make revenue generators out of unsuspecting home health care workers whose sick children or elderly or invalid family members receive state subsidies through Medicaid.
The justification is that these caregivers' clients — usually members of their own families — receive government money. Union-friendly states have applied a twisted logic to acts of loving care within a family to justify deeming the caregivers government employees. It does not help the forcibly unionized carers — it brings them not pensions or benefits, for example — but forces them pay tribute from their Medicaid assistance to a union. The unions need only sit back and reap the rewards of getting their friendly Democratic governor elected. The employees get nothing except the privilege of paying fees.
The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on such arrangements this summer with its Harris v. Quinn decision, ruling that states cannot force payments from non-members who aren't actually state employees.
In order to comply with Quinn and avoid further precedent-setting losses in the courts, SEIU in Minnesota announced in July that if it won the unionization election, it would not require payment of fees from the non-members it will now represent. Still to be determined, however, is the precise shape this compliance will take.
For example, will caregivers be told in ominous letters that their fee is due, but not that it's optional? Will they be invited to embrace union representation voluntarily, or (more likely) will they be forced to act in order to opt out?
And how easy or confusing will the union make the opt-out process? Washington State's local 775NW has given caregivers only a 15-day annual window to opt out, based on the anniversary of their union representation. (The precise terms are spelled out in five-point font on a highly misleading form.)
SEIU may have won a round, but worker awareness and further court challenges could, one hopes, turn these unseemly benefit-skimming operations into a thing of the past.