WASHINGTON – Pam Harris is an unlikely activist.
She is just a Lake County 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.
One Sunday morning, however, 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.
She didn’t think she should have to give money to some union boss in order to care for her son. So she led a push among caregivers to reject union representation – and won.
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. On Jan. 21, their case was heard by the United States Supreme Court.
I found the case intriguing, so I traveled to Washington to hear it argued.
It’s important to remember that Harris doesn’t consider herself anyone’s employee, yet alone someone ripe for union organizing.
It turns out, Gov. Pat Quinn had issued an executive order saying home care workers such as Harris were state employees for the purposes of “collective bargaining.”
Just why would an “employer” try to assist “employees” in joining a union? After all, 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, Rod Blagojevich, who also issued orders like this.
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?”
Hmmm, Sam, that’s an interesting observation.
By the way, 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 high court to rule that government workers can’t be forced to pay union dues or “representation fees” to unions.
Please remember that’s how half of the states already operate. Why should someone be forced to give money to a union to advocate for something they don’t believe?
After all, there is that little thing called freedom of speech in our Constitution.
SEIU – and other government unions – could see the perils of losing a lawsuit like this. It could result in them being dependent on dues from folks who want to belong to a union, not people forced to give money to it.
So not surprisingly, they pulled out all the stops. They even brought out folks in wheelchairs – in the middle of a snowstorm – to tell reporters on the front steps of the U.S. Supreme Court that they hope their home care workers are unionized.
And some home care workers who want to belong to a union told reporters why they thought organized labor was just swell.
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 Pam 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!
And Pam certainly didn’t see the TV cameras and reporters on the front steps of the high court.
Pam Harris was back 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 is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.