By Amanda Becker and Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court dealt unions a setback Monday by ruling that state-paid, in-home care workers in Illinois cannot be compelled to pay union dues, but stopped short of blocking organized labor from collecting such fees from other public employees.
In a narrowly crafted 5-4 ruling written by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, the court said plaintiff Pamela Harris and others who provide in-home care for family members and others with disabilities are "partial" or "quasi" public employees and cannot be forced to financially support a public employees union. The court's four liberal justices dissented.
The court did not, as the plaintiffs asked and unions feared, overturn its 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. In that case, the high court affirmed that collective bargaining agreements can require public-sector employees to pay the portion of union dues not spent on political activities.
Still, the court delivered the most important labor ruling in its nine-month term wrapping up Monday, likely making it more difficult for unions to organize home care givers in future.
Unions said the ruling will worsen conditions for low-wage workers and lead to substandard in-home care. Anti-union groups lauded it as an interim victory.
"Families in Illinois can relax knowing their homes are safe from being a union workplace and there will be no third party intruding into the care we provide our disabled sons and daughters," Harris said.
Harris cares for her adult son Josh Harris, who has a rare genetic syndrome and needs around-the-clock care. She and other plaintiffs were represented by the anti-union group the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
In Illinois, as in many states, home-based personal care workers who assist the disabled are paid with funds from the state-federal Medicaid health insurance program as state employees. The practice is meant to lower overall care costs by keeping disabled individuals at home and out of institutions.
The workers were covered by a collective bargaining agreement that subtracts dues from Medicaid payments for non-political activities performed by the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois-Indiana.
Harris argued that they were required to subsidize speech they did not support in violation of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.
'A FAIR SHAKE'
A White House statement said President Barack Obama was disappointed the court had differentiated between in-home care givers and other public sector workers.
"The court's decision will not only make it significantly harder for these dedicated employees to get a fair shake in exchange for their hard work, but will make it harder for states and cities to ensure the elderly and Americans with disabilities get the care they need and deserve," the White House said.
Alito wrote that categorizing in-home care workers as public employees would be a "substantial expansion" of the standard the court approved in the Abood case.
"Illinois deems personal assistants to be state employees for one purpose only, collective bargaining," Alito wrote.
In-home care givers collectively paid more than $3.6 million annually to the union, according to court records.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for dissenters, said the Abood case was so "deeply entrenched" it made it "impossible" for the majority to reverse it. Yet, "today's majority cannot resist taking potshots at Abood," Kagan wrote. SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said, "Joining together in a union is the only proven way home care workers have of improving their lives and the lives of the people they care for."
Joel Barras, an attorney with the firm Reed Smith who represents employers, said while the ruling was a loss for unions they avoided the "potentially devastating opinion many anticipated."
The anti-union group the Center For Union Facts said the ruling was a cause to celebrate but was "by no means a 'mission accomplished' moment."
"There are still millions of public sector employees who are forced to pay dues and fees to unions they never voted to join," said the group's president, Richard Berman.
The case is Pamela Harris, et al v. Pat Quinn, Governor of Illinois, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-681.
(Editing by Will Dunham, Bernadette Baum and Grant McCool)