(CNN) -- In a decision that sidesteps a major shift in labor policy, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that Illinois can't force home health care workers to pay dues to unions.
The narrow 5-4 ruling applies most directly to the Illinois home care providers who challenged a state decision to classify them as public employees and require them to pay fees to a union.
But it also deals a blow to union efforts nationwide to extend their reach in an era of declining membership and political influence.
\"These home workers share a lot of attributes of the new emerging workforce, and for unions, it's a big blow because that was their growth area,\" George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley told CNN. \"And it's going to be very difficult now to extend these contracts to get those types of dues.\"
Still, the ruling was not as broad as many union activists had feared, falling well short of what some had predicted would be a vote to gut a 37-year-old Supreme Court decision allowing for what's known in labor circles as the \"agency shop\" system.
Instead, the court created a new category of \"partial public employees\" who can't be compelled to pay into the union system.
\"A narrow decision, a loss for the unions but not as catastrophic as many labor union people had feared,\" said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
The ruling stems from a decision by Illinois lawmakers to classify home health care workers paid by Medicaid as state employees and require them to pay fees to the Service Employees International Union.
The union exclusively bargains with the state over wages, hours and working conditions.
The employees, most of whom were hired by individual patients and reimbursed through Medicaid, argued they were being forced to subsidize the union's efforts in violation of constitutional rights of free speech and free association.
State officials argued that mandatory union representation increased wages and benefits, reduced employee turnover and improved training and supervision.
Despite the narrow reach of the ruling, labor activists and their allies were displeased.
The ruling \"strikes a blow against efforts to address the serious problem of income inequality in this country,\" Fordham University law professor James Brudney told CNN. \"Home care employees are among our lowest-paid workers, and this decision will make it harder for them to come together to improve conditions.\"
The conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, however, celebrated the ruling as a major victory.
\"This decision delivers a major blow to the coercive powers of government unions,\" CEI policy analyst Trey Kovacs said in a statement. \"The ruling frees thousands of home care and child care providers from financially assisting government unions that they disagree with.\"
CNN's Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta; Bill Mears reported and wrote from Washington.