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In the early labor movement, one of the most contentious issues was over whether unionized workplaces should be "open shops" or "closed shops." Closed shops require all workers to pay union dues, regardless of their feelings about organized labor.

After many decades of debate, the issue became largely a settled one in the eyes of the courts.

In a series of rulings the Supreme Court found closed shops to be OK, much in the same way that it signed off on agricultural promotion boards that force farmers to underwrite ad campaigns such as "Got Milk?" and "Beef, it's what's for dinner." Everyone pays, and everyone reaps the benefits.

But as the labor movement has become less and less about factory workers, and more and more about government employees, the Supreme Court has begun to have its doubts. Public-sector unions are much more political than their private-sector counterparts. They not only fight for higher wages and benefits, but they also advocate for certain elected and appointed officials who can help bring these things about.

And that, in turn, has added a new layer of constitutional concern. Being forced to join an association is one thing. Being forced to join an association with a decided political tilt is another.

So labor unions awaited Monday's decision in Harris v. Quinn with great trepidation. The case examined whether home health care workers — who are hired by individuals to care for aged or sick family members, but are paid for by states and the federal government through Medicaid — could be compelled to pay dues to the Service Employees International Union.

In a 5-4 decision, the court said they could not. But to the relief of the labor movement, it limited the ruling to those particular workers, rather than applying it to the much larger universe of all government workers.

Labor should consider itself fortunate this time. The ruling did not strike down a broad 1977 precedent allowing for mandatory union dues for public workers. But its author, Justice Samuel Alito, referred to the earlier ruling's "questionable foundations," sending a clear signal that the court may be building up to a more sweeping decision some time in the future.

Instead of waiting for the next shoe to drop at the Supreme Court, labor needs to regain some of the private-sector workers it has been losing. That won't be easy. Companies are often hostile to unions and are able to move jobs offshore or replace them with technology.

Modern private workplaces are competitive, flexible and innovative. Unions will have to be as well if they are to survive.

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.

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