Susan Watts, of Hinsdale, who is the personal assistant for her daughter Libby, 27, lauded the Supreme Court’s ruling Monday on in-home care workers. “You can dream big and you can make a difference, but you have to have the courage to stand up for what you believe,” Watts said. (Chuck Berman, Chicago Tribune / June 29, 2014)

Susan Watts said she jumped and screamed Monday morning when she learned that, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she did not have to pay union dues.

"You can dream big and you can make a difference, but you have to have the courage to stand up for what you believe," Watts said.

She acknowledges that her pay has gone up because of her union. But she said she believes the money would be better spent serving more disabled and elderly people.

Her victory means that SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas could lose the dues of 8,000 workers it represents in Illinois who are nonunion members.

Watts is the personal assistant to her 27-year-old daughter, Libby, who has severe cerebral palsy. Libby was born 15 weeks premature and can't use her arms or legs, can't swallow and has difficulty breathing.

Under a state program, Watts is reimbursed at about $12 an hour for a portion of the time she spends caring for Libby.

When she joined the program about eight years ago, she looked at her first paycheck and noticed a deduction for "non-member dues." Watts said she didn't know she was supporting a union and tried to stop the payments, which amount to about $800 per year, depending on the amount of hours she works.

She eventually joined a group of eight mothers who, like her, did not want a union or to be forced to pay dues. In 2010, the group, led by Pamela Harris, sued Gov. Pat Quinn and the union with the help of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an anti-union group. The attorneys argued in Harris v. Quinn that forcing workers to pay dues to a union is a violation of the First Amendment.

The court said that in-home care workers like Watts are not full-fledged public employees because they are answerable only to their clients and not to the state of Illinois. As such, the court determined that they shouldn't be forced to pay union dues.

A previous case held that state employees who chose not to join a union may still be forced to pay union dues related to the collective bargaining process to prevent "free-riding" — sharing the benefits without sharing the costs.

The court's decision Monday means that if in-home care workers desert the Service Employees International Union, the union can't force them to pay dues.

The court's decision is not as far-reaching as unions had feared, but it still has significant implications.

Experts say they expect to see an increase of cases that would question the definition of full-fledged public employees within other unions.

Keith Kelleher, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas, which represents about 26,000 in-home care workers in Illinois, said the decision could weaken the union's ability to represent workers. Those members have been paying annual dues of more than $3.6 million, according to court documents.

The loss of those dues could significantly hurt the union. About 30 percent of the union's in-home health care workers were paying dues as nonmembers. Slightly less than 70 percent of SEIU Healthcare members — or about 18,000 workers — are union members.

Still, Kelleher and other union leaders vowed to find new ways of organizing workers in this sector.

"It's not going to stop us," said Kelleher, who helped build the union starting in the 1980s because it had some of the lowest-paying jobs in the state. Workers received as little as $1 per hour for some tasks to $3.35 per hour, the state's minimum wage at the time.

Kelleher initially failed to persuade the state Illinois Labor Relations Board to recognize the workers as public employees.

In 2003, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed an executive order recognizing the workers as public employees, a move that allowed the state to bargain with the union. Quinn later expanded the definition to workers in other programs.

Today, SEIU Healthcare is one of the largest unions in the Midwest, with more than 93,000 members across four states. Kelleher said the union secured increased wages, fought for health benefits and improved turnover rates. He fears, he said, that the decision Monday would weaken the union's ability to represent workers.