Vermont Childcare Providers Watch Harris vs. Quinn

By Alice Dubenetsky

On January 21st, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Harris vs. Quinn. At issue is “whether a state may, consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, compel personal care providers to accept and financially support a private organization as their exclusive representative to petition the state for greater reimbursements from it’s Medicaid programs.”

Legalese aside, the complainants are asking for relief from compulsory unionization and payment of union dues for representation they do not wish to have.

Home care workers in Illinois filed the class-action lawsuit against the state in 2010, arguing that their First Amendment rights to freedom of association were being violated by compulsory unionization. The case has made it’s way through the court system, with state and federal appeals courts siding with the state, ruling that yes, the state could compel the plaintiffs to pay dues to the union, because the union was working on their behalf. Vermont’s Home Health Care workers are already unionized under AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees)

The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on Harris vs. Quinn, but independent childcare providers in Vermont are watching the case closely because state legislators and Governor Shumlin have stated categorically that, for their own good and protection, they must submit to having union representation forced upon them. For the past several years, they have been engaged in an on-going conflict with the legislature. They have so far succeeded in pushing back on attempts by the Vermont branch of the American Federation of Teachers to compel childcare providers to join the union. Those who choose not to join would still be required to pay dues or fees.

Vermont’s independent childcare providers are, in fact, small business owners, and they argue that a public employee union has no place in their private affairs. They also argue that exclusive union representation would take away their First Amendment right to petition the Vermont legislature for increases or changes in subsidies. They already set their own rates, hours and programs. They keep their own books and operate as privately owned small businesses all across the state. They believe they have plenty of support from state agencies and that there is nothing a union can do for them except pick their pockets for dues or fees.

In a 2012 letter to the editor in the Burlington Free Press, childcare provider Janette Dumont summed up the opinion of many of her colleagues. “I believe unionizing will move control of my business and the development of children out of my hands and into the hands of others who have not considered the best interest of the children and families I provide for. Paying someone to represent me will divert money away from childcare resulting in decreased potential for development in children and reducing access to affordable childcare for families.”

While Harris vs. Quinn has not garnered very much public attention on the national stage it is being closely watched by big unions who have a vested interest in the compulsory unionization of public employees and by a number of conservative groups, including the National Right to Work Foundation. The Right to Work Foundation was established in 1968 with the stated mission “to eliminate coercive union power and compulsory unionism abuses through strategic litigation, public information and education programs.”

Vermont’s childcare providers ran into a bit of “coercive union power”, or more accurately, strong-arming, during the 2013 legislative session, when reports began to emerge that childcare providers were being visited at their home business locations by union representatives. The union people cajoled, intimidated and insisted that they call their representatives immediately to support the unionization effort. In at least one case, a fraudulent supportive phone call was made to a legislator in the name of a childcare provider, who just happened to discover the deceit during a subsequent discussion with her representative.

Labor groups fear that the lawsuit could jeopardize Abood vs Detroil Board of Education a 1977 Supreme Court decision that upheld requirements that non-union worker pay part of the dues assessed by labor organization because the union is legally bound to represent them too. The ruling applied to private-sector workers, and later to public employees. But the unions might have engaged in over-reach in going after private workers who accept public funds, as in the case of Vermont’s childcare providers, where parents often receive subsidies. That could prove to be a slippery slope – could it then possibly extend to food stamps, or other subsidies?

The unions are desperate to hold on to their relevance because their membership numbers have collapsed over the past several decades. The Supreme Court’s decision on Harris vs. Quinn will have wide ranging implications, regardless of which how they vote. Will the unions win this battle to force independent Americans to join an organization they don’t feel they need, and may not agree with politically, against their will? Or will common sense and freedom of choice and of association win out in the end. Stay tuned. This court has been very unpredictable of late.