Harris v. Quinn Decision

By Aaron M. Nisenson

In late June, the US Supreme Court issued a much anticipated decision in Harris v. Quinn, a case in which the plaintiffs requested that the court rule unconstitutional the charging of agency fees in the public sector. Agency fees, also known as fair share, are fees charged by unions to all bargaining unit members (including those who choose not to join the union) to pay for expenses that arise out of a union’s representation activities.

While the court stopped short of altering agency fee jurisprudence for all public sector workers, the five-to-four opinion issued by Justice Alito questioned the thirty-five-year legacy of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, in which the court had backed the constitutionality of agency fees.

In its decision in Harris, the court ruled that agency fees
could not be imposed on certain “partial-public” employees, a category that has little applicability to faculty members at public institutions. Accordingly, the general agency fee jurisprudence as it applies to most AAUP chapters and members should continue undisturbed.

However, there are some disturbing undercurrents in the decision. The five-justice majority clearly questions the rationale supporting Abood and all but invites further challenges to Abood in general. The court also created a new category of workers now known as “partial-public employees.” This category, while not well defined, could result in attempts to create designated “partial-public” employees.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when combined with recent legislative changes
 in Michigan and other states, 
this case illustrates the fragil
ity of agency fee provisions and the need for AAUP chapters to continue expanding their percentage of active and engaged chapter members.