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California Nurses Warn That Losing Supreme Court Case Could Gut Unions

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Nurse Jane Sandoval speaks at a rally in front of San Mateo County Hospital. As a member of the California Nurses Association, she's drawing attention to a Supreme Court case that could dramatically weaken public sector unions.  (Laura Klivans/KQED)

Nurses protested outside San Mateo Medical Center in front of a sign that read “Patient safety comes from union strength" last week. They wore the characteristic bright red shirts of their own union: the California Nurses Association (CNA).

They were calling attention to the U.S. Supreme Court case Janus vs. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The outcome of the case could dramatically weaken public sector unions if the court overturns a rule that requires non-union employees at union-affiliated workplaces to pay "fair share" fees.

Public sector employees who are not union members are required to pay these fees because the union's collective bargaining is meant to benefit all employees equally, whether they're full-fledged union members or not. Opponents of this rule say mandatory union fees violate First Amendment rights.

In addition to San Mateo Medical Center, nurses demonstrated at six other hospitals around the state to advocate for the preservation of the current union rule.

Margarita Harrington is a nurse with the San Mateo County Health System.  She thinks that if people do not have to pay "fair share" fees, they probably won't. And that will squeeze unions like hers, despite CNA's 86,000-person member base.


"If suddenly people just stop paying dues, then how will the union be able to sustain itself?" Harrington asked. "It’s sort of like they’re gonna starve the union. And then it eventually impacts us."

Harrington said having the union behind her has helped her bring up concerns with hospital management in her 22 years with the San Mateo County Health System. She said stronger unions keep patients safer because nurses can bring up problems in hospitals without fear of retaliation. For example, unions set limits on nurses' workloads and work hours. Without those, nurses could be unable to adequately attend to patients.

The Supreme Court heard a similar case in 2016: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

The lead plaintiff was an elementary school teacher based in Orange County. When Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, however, the case ended in a tie, so nothing changed.

Oral arguments begin in the Supreme Court on Monday.

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