Mom at Center of Union Case Misses Supreme Court Hearing to Care for Disabled Son

Published January 30, 2014

Pam Harris is an unlikely activist.

She is just a Lake County, Ill., mom looking after her disabled adult son.

Rather than place her son, Josh, in an institution, she entered a program where she receives state assistance to care for him at home.

But one Sunday morning, an organizer for Service Employees International Union knocked on her door and asked her to vote to join a union.

It threw her for a loop.

You see, if a majority of home-care workers voted to join a union, she would have to give money to the union—whether she wanted to belong or not.

And she didn’t think she should have to give money to some union boss in order to care for her son.

Union Rejected But Doesn’t Care

So she led a push among caregivers to reject union representation—and won.

But the story doesn’t end there. SEIU can keep calling for votes.

Faced with this prospect, Harris and seven other home-care workers went to court. And on Jan. 21, their case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I found the case intriguing, so I traveled to Washington to hear it argued.

It’s important to remember Harris doesn’t consider herself anyone’s employee, let alone someone ripe for union organizing.

Governor Made the Change

It turns out Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) had issued an executive order classifying home-care workers like Harris as state employees for the purposes of “collective bargaining.”

Just why would an “employer” try to assist “employees” in joining a union?

During my more than 30 years in the private-sector workforce, I’ve never had a boss come up to me and say, “Hey, guys let me help you start a union.”

But I guess Quinn is a different sort of boss. For that matter, so was his predecessor and current federal prison inmate, Rod Blagojevich, who also issued orders of this type.

Justice Notes Illinois’ Political Corruption

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito expressed skepticism of the past governor’s motivations to help unions.

“I thought the situation was that Gov. Blagojevich got a huge campaign contribution from the union, and virtually as soon as he got into office he took out his pen and signed an executive order that had the effect of putting, what was it, $3.6 million into the union coffers.” Alito said during the arguments before the Court.

That’s an interesting observation. As it happens, between 2002 and 2012, Quinn received $2,971,582 in campaign contributions from government worker unions, of which $1,385,955 came from SEIU.

If Harris wins her case, it could reshape labor law for government workers across the nation.

Her attorney asked the court to rule government workers can’t be forced to pay union dues or “representation fees” to unions.

Fear of Freedom

SEIU—and other government labor unions—can see the perils of losing a lawsuit like this. It would make them dependent on dues from only those who want to belong to a union, not people forced to give money to it.

Not surprisingly, the unions have pulled out all the stops in fighting the suit.

They even brought out people in wheelchairs—in the middle of a snowstorm—to tell reporters on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court they hope their home-care workers will be pushed into unionization.

Some home-care workers who want to belong to a union told reporters at the gathering why they thought organized labor was just swell.

Harris Stays Home with Son

But glancing around at all the TV cameras and microphones, one couldn’t help but wonder: Where is Pam Harris?

After all, it’s not every day one has a case argued before the highest court in the land.

But Harris was nowhere to be found. She didn’t see the justices in their robes enter the marble courtroom or hear the clerk call out, Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!

She certainly didn’t see the TV cameras and reporters on the front steps of the high court. Pam Harris was home in Illinois looking after her son.

After all, she isn’t an activist—just a mom doing what’s best for her son.

Scott Reeder ([email protected]) is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. Used with permission of the Illinois Policy Institute.