There Were Two Supreme Court Attacks on Women Workers and Their Health This Week


Read more of our coverage on the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases here.

By now, we are all well aware of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case. In a split decision, the Supreme Court put in jeopardy women’s access to contraception and has given the religious freedom of those with money and privilege the power to dictate the health coverage of their employees.

Monday morning, the Court also struck a blow to unions in Harris v. Quinn, undermining the ability of home-care workers in Illinois to bargain for humane wages and benefits. While the Hobby Lobby case keeps the government from guaranteeing basic reproductive health care for workers, the Harris decision effectively hobbles the ability of a group of public employees—most of whom are women—to properly bargain for affordable health care along with other vital benefits. Remember, it was unions that first pressed for health and retirement benefits for employees, vaulting them into the mainstream and giving them the widespread status they enjoy today. Overall, the message the Court seems to be sending is that the government can’t fight for your health and neither can you.

Harris is a case about the rights of public employees to demand fair wages and benefits, including health care. Home-care workers are contracted by the State of Illinois to help clients in the state’s rehabilitation program. Their union collects fees from nonmembers in order to ensure everyone shares in the costs of negotiating for benefits—a common feature of these kinds of contracts, authorized by law in over 20 states. According to Justice Kagan’s dissent in Harris, “home-care assistants [in Illinois] have nearly doubled their wages in less than ten years, obtained state funded health insurance, and benefited from better training and workplace safety measures” because of the union’s success. The state and its clients have also benefited from a having stable, qualified workforce. Win-win.

In spite of these successes, a majority of the justices in Harris sided with nonmembers who objected to paying fees on First Amendment grounds. In doing so, the Supreme Court took a step toward stripping workers in many states of the tools they need to get fair wages and benefits, including health-care coverage. And perhaps it is no great surprise that, like the Hobby Lobby decision, Harris disproportionately affects women, who form an overwhelming majority of the home-care workforce, are consistently paid less than men, and tend to pay more for health care.

Working women and families seeking affordable health care deserve to have their voices heard in Congress and at the bargaining table. Instead, the Supreme Court has given a small number of nay-sayers veto power over workers’ access to employee benefits in the name of religious liberty and First Amendment freedoms. Now, thanks to this ruling, public sector union agreements may be vulnerable to attack by anti-union attorneys in many states. And closely held corporations (which make up about 90 percent of all corporations in the country) whose owners assert they have a personal objection to contraceptives are likely to exempt themselves from providing basic health coverage.

We ought to be asking ourselves whose rights the Court is protecting in these decisions and at what cost, under the banner of a legal philosophy that appears deeply invested in halting and reversing any progress in the health and well-being of women and their families.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

  • blfdjlj

    Public unions are harmful and I am happy that the Supreme Court has limited their benefits.

    • P. McCoy

      So you believe in slave labor? Move to a Moslem country and work there as a passport less non entity whose only way out of a work contract is dying!

      • blfdjlj

        I support freedom of contract where the worker can leave a bad job whenever the hell he wants (and an employer can fire a bad worker whenever he likes as well).

        • lady_black

          Well, that’s what you have got. Even in a union shop. The union will probably insist that the employer follow his own disciplinary process, which will be in writing, so there are no surprises. You know, like requiring a system of warnings, depending on the seriousness of the offense. That’s fair. In a non-union shop, the employer can fire you because he doesn’t like your hairstyle. That’s NOT fair.

    • Norman Clark

      you obviously do not have a clue what you are talking about so it might be better if you did some extensive research into what unions have done for the American worker before you make your comments

      • blfdjlj

        Public unions have made it impossible to fire bad workers. If workers do get laid off, idiotic rules mean that only seniority matters, and not, you know, your performance at work.

        • Norman Clark

          actually that is more of a long time faux noise/conservative talking point rather than anything actually happening in the real world. there are procedures in place to remove ANY undesireable employee in any workplace environement. Without unions the country would be at the mercy of the robber barons. and please don’t insult my intelligence by insisting the days of the robber baron long gone. Also don’t forget the many other advantages to the American worker that came about because of strong unions. The 40 hour work week comes to mind amongst others. look it up if you do not believe

        • lady_black

          If your performance at work is bad, you will be fired. And seniority does matter. Some employers have this bad habit of laying off and firing workers who are, you know, close to retirement. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s wrong. So yes, seniority does matter. But seniority isn’t a golden ticket to do whatever you please. If you break the rules, they can fire you. Although in a union shop, it has to be for actual misconduct, and not for whatever reason the boss likes as a pretense. I’ve also seen THAT. There are all sorts of abuses, like employers who wish to say, eliminate a position, which is fine and dandy, They have the right to do that. What they do NOT have the right to do is make up some reason to deny the employee UE. I’ve seen a lot of THAT, too. If the employee fights it, they will win at a hearing. But they still try not to pay unemployment. Fucking bastards. They hope you’ll just go away.

        • kitler

          You would be working 7 days a week 14 hours a day if not for unions.

          • BelligerentBruncher

            Why would your company make the employees work that many hours?

            You are evil.

          • kitler

            Before unions existed, employees basically treated their employees like slaves.

            Pray tell, how does imparting this fact make me “evil”?

          • BelligerentBruncher

            You’re evil because you’d run your company like that unless the government wasn’t telling you not to.

            That’s what makes YOU evil.

          • kitler

            Crack is whack, kiddo.

      • colleen2

        this person is a Republican. They don’t do research. They hate.

        • Norman Clark

          I know but some days you just have to mess with one of the ignorant fools. just can’t seem to help myself

    • fiona64

      I suggest you research the history of the labor movement before you come back and say more ridiculous things.