While most of the media has spilled their ink over the Supreme Court’s narrow 5-4 decision on Hobby Lobby, stating that most privately owned corporations can now refuse to allow birth control coverage in their insurance plans if the company’s owner claims to have sincerely held moral beliefs regarding contraception, another divisive case was also resolved, with just as worrisome implications for women.
Harris v. Quinn was a lawsuit brought about by a handful of home health care workers in the state of Illinois who were upset about being forced to pay dues to their union, saying it was a violation of their first amendment freedom of speech. Conservatives watched the case eagerly, hoping that the court would agree and strike down mandatory union dues all together, which would be a huge blow against their collective bargaining power and allow corporations more control over how many hours they can force employees to work, what sort of protections the worker has if he or she feels she has been discriminated against in advancement or firing, the conditions of the workplace and, of course, wages and benefits.
Union dues, like them or not, allow all workers to have representatives and lawyers, the clout to push for better working conditions and other perks that keep businesses from taking total advantage of their workers. For those who want to skip paying dues, usually because they feel the dues go to lobbying they may not personally agree with, they still often want the full range of benefits that come with still being a union member, such as the better wages, paid leave and job protection that non-union employees don’t receive.
The court didn’t strike down all mandatory union dues, as was feared. Instead, they ruled that home health care workers as a group do not have to pay dues unless they wish to, because they were “partial public employees.” As they are hired by individual employers, even though their wages were paid for by Medicaid, they weren’t true public employees in the way that police, teachers or other union dues paying employees may be. The argument is, since they don’t need to do the same type of bargaining as pure public sector employees, they don’t get the same benefits from dues, and dues are more likely to be used for political means.
This ruling, which affects more than just those workers in Illinois, but also in California, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts and Missouri, where there are similar programs in place by the state, essentially says that home health care work, which is predominately women employed, isn’t “real work” in the same way that other labor is, according to Shelia Bapat, author of “Part of the Family,” a new book about the rights of the domestic labor movement. Since the state, not the person the worker is in the home of, is the one who has sole responsibility over that employee’s wage and responsiveness to the working conditions, the situation is no different from that of any other union member.
Except, again, it’s women, and they are doing “women’s work.” “This decision has a deeply troubling effect on domestic work, specifically, and thus disproportionately affects women of color,” writes Bapat at Talking Points Memo. “The Court’s ruling, which will make it harder for many domestic workers to earn higher wages, has essentially entrenched the historic devaluation of domestic work. Domestic workers — mostly women of color who care for children, elderly, disabled and ill — are among the lowest-paid workers in the United States. There are some 2 million domestic workers in the country, many of whom are serving the most elderly and disabled populations as part of programs like the one in Illinois. Several states have, like Illinois, established programs through which they pay domestic workers to care for their state’s most vulnerable populations. These unions have been shown to reduce worker turnover as well as improve care for those who need it most.”
That the court’s conservative wing and Kennedy (if that is even a separation anymore) chose to isolate and demean a wing of the female labor movement to weaken is just the latest of the courts hits against women this session. In Hobby Lobby, the contraception mandate was specifically singled out as a place where employers could object morally, with the same five justices specifically stating no other medical procedure could be ousted due to moral distaste. In the court’s buffer zone ruling, the justices stated that “counseling” a pregnant person going to obtain reproductive health care, even if she specifically asks the person to leave her alone, should just be a part of the experience that she must learn to deal with, because after all, it is an abortion. Even a decision to take up a case on violent speech online, the so called “true threat” case, points to a Supreme Court that appears to see threatening speech as a simple, run of the mill misogynistic free speech ramblings, according to legal analyst Jessica Mason Pieklo.
The Supreme Court has wrapped its 2014 summer session, and that’s good news for women. Between making it harder to support oneself at a job, or to access birth control so that one can prevent pregnancy and continue working, women can’t take much more of the Supreme Court deciding what’s best for us.
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