Linda Dobbs was confused. Because she had been paying union dues each month for 15 months, Dobbs thought she already was a card-carrying union member.
So why did the United Long-Term Care Workers’ Union send two representatives to her home with membership forms in hand? She eventually came to the conclusion that the labor union sought to protect a lucrative flow of dues in case a U.S. Supreme Court case went against it.
Dobbs wasn’t home when the union reps first showed up to drop off literature. They returned the next day and spoke to her in person, but could not answer any of her questions.
“When I asked them why they needed my signature, they said they wanted me to be a full member and that they were updating their records,” Dobbs told The Foundry. “They also told me they needed to get organized in the more rural areas like mine.”
Dobbs resides in Mendocino County, Calif., about two hours north of San Francisco by car. She says:
This is a very liberal, heavily Democratic part of the state. So when I asked them what the union was doing for its membership, the two reps pulled out a list that said the union was promoting the Affordable Care Act and that it supported the re-election of the president.
For Dobbs, an independent contractor in public records research, this was hardly a selling point.
After she continued to resist signing the form, she recalls, the two union workers “looked at each other” and asked whether it would be OK for their senior organizer to call Dobbs on the phone. She agreed; that call came just two hours later. The union representatives also made it clear they would be in the neighborhood for at least a month to collect signatures from other residents who worked in her industry.
Since May 2012, Dobbs has taken care of her disabled daughter at home as what is called an “in-home support services” worker. As a matter of state law, she is required to pay $30.66 in dues each month to the United Long-Term Care Workers’ Union, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). For all intents and purposes, home-care workers aren’t really state employees, Dobbs says.
“On the W-2 form, my daughter’s name is on there as the employer,” she says. “But the state does pay our wages under what is known as the Medi-Cal program, which is part of Medicare.”
Until Feb. 14, the day the two union representatives appeared on her doorstep, Dobbs’ membership in the union had made little difference in her professional life—except, of course, the monthly dues she had to pay. The union, for example, doesn’t provide collective bargaining services, she says, and has done little to raise wages.
California’s minimum wage will increase to $9 an hour beginning in July, but the going rate in Mendocino County for home-care workers is already $9.90 an hour.
Unlike her friends and neighbors working in the home-care industry, Dobbs, 52, also is aware of a major legal development that would explain why the union is determined to collect signatures.
In January, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Harris v. Quinn, which seeks to overturn state laws compelling caregivers to pay union dues and accept a union as their exclusive representative to the government. The primary caregiver for her disabled son, Pamela Harris, is among personal care assistants who are challenging the Illinois state government’s authority to categorize them as public employees.
Lawyers with National Right to Work Foundation who are representing Harris and the other plaintiffs argued before the high court that it is unconstitutional to compel Illinois residents to fund SEIU’s political activism.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, payment of union dues by personal caregivers no longer would be mandatory but become voluntary. Dobbs says of her suspicions:
That’s what the visit to my home and to the home of other caregivers was really about. The unions are afraid of where Harris v. Quinn might go. You have to read the fine print on the membership form to see what’s going on here. They’re trying to lock people into paying dues while they still can.
The fine print is what caught her attention. Although the forms delivered to the Dobbs residence were ostensibly about immigration reform, they actually were crafted to lure new union members.
And so, although the literature promotes the “Dignity California” campaign in big, bold letters, the page that solicits membership and authorizes payment of dues to the union includes these provisos in the fine print:
This authorization is irrevocable, irrespective of my membership status, for a period of a year, from the date of execution, or until the termination date of the applicable collective bargaining agreement, whichever occurs sooner. This authorization shall be automatically renewed for successive periods of one year or for the period of each succeeding applicable collective bargaining agreement, whichever period shall be shorter, unless I revoke it by providing written notice signed by me and sent through registered mail to the Employer and to the Union either during the ten-day period prior to the end of any such applicable yearly period or during the ten -day period prior to the termination date of any applicable collective bargaining agreement, whichever occurs sooner.
If this notice is not sent, the authorization of dues payments will be renewed automatically.
“So the union operatives are doing everything they can to pre-empt what they view as the likely outcome of Harris v. Quinn,” Dobbs says. “If you sign off on this, you can still get out at some point, but you have to jump through all kinds of hoops and navigate your way through a very cumbersome process. So, I say don’t sign.”
The Foundry made multiple phone calls seeking comment from SEIU communications offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., but received no response after several days.
Because the Harris case argues against the Illinois statute on the basis of both the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, it also asks the high court to overturn the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education ruling, which allows government officials to compel public employees to pay union dues.
Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, anticipates the Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris will focus narrowly on the policy changes particular to Illinois—the changes that compel personal care workers to accept union representation. At the same time, he says in an interview with The Foundry, the court could take the opportunity to signal it is prepared to issue a broader ruling in favor of free speech and freedom of association within the context of labor law.
Pell’s organization, a public-interest law firm based in Washington, D.C., has taken up the cause of California schoolteachers who are challenging the state’s “agency shop” law.
Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association is now before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The plaintiffs seek to overturn the mandatory collection of fees for collective bargaining expenses, which now occurs in the 26 states that don’t have right-to-work laws. Friedrichs also seeks to replace the opt-out system used for the “political” portion of union dues with a voluntary, opt-in system.
Linda Dobbs eventually took that call from the SEIU’s “senior organizer,” who identified himself as “Mike,” and said he was based in Los Angeles. Dobbs pressed Mike to clarify how exactly her union status or benefits would change if she did sign. She recalls:
He knew what my exact questions were, so he was well briefed on me. He told me I was not a full member, and that I was just a fee-payer. He also said that I had nothing to lose by signing and that I would be on the outside looking in if I didn’t sign.
Although “Mike” continued to lobby, Dobbs says she is content to remain “on the outside looking in” while waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision.
This story was produced by The Foundry’s news team. Nothing here should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of The Heritage Foundation.