Here in Maine, it’s no secret that unions are on the outs.

With the exodus of large-scale manufacturing in textiles, paper and shoes, union membership has steadily declined.

But one species of union – the government workers’ unions – has only grown stronger, almost entirely because of union bosses’ unseemly political ties to the Democratic Party.

Union bosses write legislation, talking points, media responses and floor speeches – and Democrats obediently play along. One veteran Democratic lawmaker has called this relationship a “stinky infestation.”

But unlike most infestations, which are hazardous for the host, this is a mutually beneficial arrangement, whereby union bosses finance Democratic political campaigns and Democrats, once in office, return the favor with legislatively bestowed concessions.

One such concession came about in 2005, when the Maine State Employees Association, Maine’s “public” union, began charging so-called “agency fees” from all state employees who refuse union membership.

WHERE THE MONEY REALLY GOES

Agency fees are supposed to be used only for nonpolitical purposes – a sort of pseudo-compromise for workers who disagree with the union’s extracurricular political activities. (But money is fungible and the distinction is entirely fictitious.)

By 2007 the union had a problem. Those nonmembers weren’t voluntarily paying fees. So the MSEA successfully strong-armed the state into becoming its collections agent.

For almost seven years, the state has been withholding fees from nonmembers’ paychecks against their will.

Last year, a legislative attempt to protect state workers’ paychecks from garnishment failed – unsurprising, given the makeup of the Legislature.

But the Supreme Court’s decision Monday in Harris v. Quinn could signal a change of momentum in the fight to give Maine state workers the freedom to choose whether they finance the MSEA.

HARRIS V. QUINN RAISES HOPES

Illinois resident Pamela Harris cares for her developmentally disabled adult son and receives a small Medicaid check to help her out.

In the last decade, two of her governors (one by the name of Blagojevich) implemented policies redefining her as a state worker and appointing a union to represent her.

When the union reps came knocking on her door, she refused their offer. But Harris nonetheless would later learn she was one of some 20,000 caregivers who had been quietly unionized, in many instances without their knowledge or consent, into a client class of the Service Employees International Union – a cash cow worth $3.6 million annually for the union.

After her elected officials declined to protect her and her son from the union’s overreach, she filed a legal challenge, which eventually came before the Supreme Court.

Harris and the seven other plaintiffs in the case – all of them caregivers who don’t want the SEIU skimming their Medicaid checks – won a major victory this week.

The court ruled that forcing home caregivers to pay into union coffers is a violation of their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association.

The decision was, however, limited. The Supreme Court justices did not go as far as to overturn the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. That case upheld government unions’ right to extract money from workers who want nothing to do with the union.

Rather than overturn Abood, as some analysts predicted, the court’s decision in Harris relied on the notion that home caregivers are not, in fact, government employees just because their patients pay them with Medicaid.

The restrained ruling left actual state government employees vulnerable to the prying reach of money-hungry union bosses.

But labor law experts I’ve spoken with say it’s only a matter of time before Abood itself is challenged in the highest court – and for many state workers, that day can’t come soon enough.

A DEATH BLOW TO THE MSEA

If Abood were successfully overturned, or if a similar end were accomplished through the enactment of pro-choice legislation, Maine state workers would have the freedom to choose whether they finance the MSEA.

Union bosses say this would be a death blow.

What a shocking admission! It means that the MSEA’s services, according to the MSEA, are of such little value that state workers will pay for them only if they are forced to.

Alternatively, giving state workers a choice in the matter could force the MSEA to provide a service so valuable people freely purchase it – a novel idea in the era of multiplying government mandates.

But of course, the duty to please its customers might mean putting an end to the union’s incestuous relationship with the Democratic Party, which is its actual reason for existence.

Steven E. Robinson is editor of TheMaineWire.Com and a policy analyst for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be contacted at:

serobinson@themainewire.com

Twitter: @Stevie_Rob