Nearly a year has passed since the U.S. Supreme Court gave a landmark ruling impacting public sector unions, but the debate – as evidenced by lawsuits – rages on in states such as Pennsylvania.
At a national level, the Janus v. AFSCME case changed how labor unions could collect dues from nonunion members. The Supreme Court ruled that public labor unions could no longer force workers who wanted no part of the union to pay it dues just for the right to keep their jobs.
Both before and after the decision, battles across Pennsylvania have taken place, including a lawsuit filed against Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration over an executive order concerning home-care workers.
The various lawsuits working their way through the courts continue to add flames to the debate centered around labor unions.
Proponents say unions remain an important part of the nation’s working fabric as such issues as raising the minimum wage are front-and-center in the policy discussion. But opponents assert unions have, at times, been overreaching and resorted to bullying tactics for workers not interested in membership.
In Pennsylvania, groups such as The Fairness Center, a nonprofit, public interest law firm, have been filing some of the lawsuits against the labor unions. Their cases page shows the different clients they have represented.
David Osborne, president and general counsel with The Fairness Center, said calling the organization “anti-union” would be a misnomer.
“We are very much pro-public employees,” Osborne said. “I see our job as representing those clients. It’s really our mission to do just that.”
But other organizations, such as the social welfare group Pennsylvania Spotlight, have asserted the more recent round of lawsuits are the latest in a string of attacks, spanning four decades, on public sector units.
In a statement given in the aftermath of last year’s Janus v. AFSCME decision, Eric Rosso, executive director of Pennsylvania Spotlight, pointed to continued support of labor unions, as evidenced by what he described as “teacher uprisings” and “new sectors of the economy organizing.”
“As long as there is collective struggle for dignity at work, the labor movement will grow and thrive, despite setbacks dealt from a rigged political decision by the Supreme Court,” Rosso said in the statement.
While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Mark Janus’ favor and unwound the practice of unions requiring mandatory dues – from members and nonmembers alike – the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court also made a ruling last year, this one in favor of organized labor movements.
The Fairness Center had filed a lawsuit against the Wolf administration over an executive order the governor issued in 2015. An advisory board for home-care workers was created as a result of the order. Wolf’s order also called on the state to share a list of the workers with representing employee organizations.
Osborne said the Fairness Center’s lawsuit against Wolf was based on a homecare worker’s request and a claim that union representation was being forced on him.
“The issue was really simple,” Osborne said. “The governor had exceeded his authority, constitutionally.”
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania agreed in 2016 and ruled in favor of The Fairness Center. But the state Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision last year.
“I think it was ill-advised,” Osborne said of the ruling.
The lawsuit against Wolf and his administration has put a spotlight on the approximately 20,000 home-care workers who are employed across Pennsylvania.
The topic of the conditions home-care workers have been enduring amid fiscal restraints and other challenges across Pennsylvania was discussed at a state House Aging and Older Adults Services Committee meeting last month.
Yetta Timothy, a certified nursing assistant, offered up testimony as the House committee held a hearing as funding for state-licensed, long-term care facilities went under the microscope.
Timothy said her working conditions have deteriorated since she entered the profession nearly two decades ago.
“Aides have no real sense of assignment,” Timothy said at the hearing. “We go from floor to floor, just trying to hold things together.”
While the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the actions Wolf and his administration have taken in the home-care worker case, Osborne said The Fairness Center remains laser-focused on issues related to labor unions.
One issue front-and-center at the moment, Osborne said, is Pennsylvania’s so-called maintenance and membership provision, which gives workers a 15-day window to opt-out at the end of a collective bargaining agreement.
“One should be free to leave their union at any time,” Osborne said.
The 5-year-old Fairness Center is based in Harrisburg and has focused most of its attention on Pennsylvania. But the organization actually is national in scope, Osborne said, pointing to a recent client being represented in Connecticut.
“We’re here because we want to make sure people’s rights are being honored,” Osborne said. “We only have a market because some of this abuse exists.”