Appeals judges weigh cases challenging home-care union law

A new union that has already negotiated benefits and working conditions for thousands of Minnesota personal care attendants came under new pressure Wednesday as federal appeals judges heard a pair of cases aimed at disbanding the labor unit.

In back-to-back hearings on separate lawsuits with the same goal, two 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panels raised doubts about their power to overturn the union for home care workers assisting the disabled and elderly. Judges in both cases dwelled on the voluntary nature of the unions, where none of the covered workers is compelled to join or pay dues.

It marked a new chapter in a yearslong fight by union opponents, who were unsuccessful in stopping the labor unit at the Legislature or in a lower court. They argued the Service Employees International Union shouldn't have been allowed to organize 27,000 workers that aren't full-fledged public employees.

William Messenger, an attorney with the National Right To Work Legal Foundation, told judges that while care attendants are paid using public health care money that doesn't make them eligible for unionization.

"Where do you draw the line? Where does it end," he asked. "If exclusive representation is not confined to true employees, where does it end?"

Messenger added that the existence of a union infringes on First Amendment association rights of personal care attendants who didn't want a single representative speaking for them.

But Appeals Judge William Riley appeared troubled by that logic. "They still could individually lobby," Riley said. "Why is that illogical or unreasonable?"

Defenders of the union say the law enabling it was properly passed by state lawmakers a few years ago. The same law also permitted a union drive among in-home day care providers that has sparked legal challenges but has yet to result in a union election. It's not clear what effect rulings in the two cases heard Wednesday would have on that effort.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a home-care union arrangement in Illinois was unconstitutional because fees were automatically subtracted from provider payments.

In arguing to uphold the union law, Solicitor General Alan Gilbert said the distinction here is that participation and dues aren't mandatory.

"They have not shown they are harmed by this particular contract," Gilbert said of the nine home care workers who brought one of the challenges to the Minnesota union law.

A group of pro-union workers and the people they care for assembled outside the federal courthouse and said the resulting contract will stabilize an industry long plagued by low pay and high turnover. They said the contract includes money for training as well as allowances for paid time off.

Cortney Phillips, a home care worker from the St. Cloud area, said losing the union would push her peers "back into the shadow," costing them job security they've gained and better conditions for their clients.

"We still have a very long way to go to give home care the value it deserves," she said. "The union is ready to help do that."

The court decisions are likely months off.