A Reluctant Union Member Fights Back

Feature: A mother caring for her daughter fights against forced unionization

January 24, 2014

Susie Watts has paid Service Employees International Union (SEIU) more than $5,000 over the past eight years for representation she never asked for and does not need.

The union withdraws more than $60 each month from the stipend that Watts’ physically disabled daughter, Libby, receives to help cover the cost of home care.

"They’re profiting from the disabled," Watts, 57, said. "They are taking money that my daughter is entitled to and repurposing it. We’re paying $700 [per year] for collective bargaining that we don’t want to be a part of."

Watts is one of Illinois’ 20,000 personal assistants (PAs) who have been forced to pay union dues by Democratic Governors Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn.

That pool of "employees" has proved a gold mine for SEIU, which has collected more than $52 million over the past five years. She is now fighting to have mandatory unionism among public employees declared unconstitutional before the United States Supreme Court.

"I’m considered a public employee solely for the purpose of paying union dues," Watts said. "The money that goes to the union it lowers the number of hours she receives for care. I’m asking out and I can’t get out."

Libby was born 15 weeks premature weighing only 1.5 pounds. She has undergone 79 surgeries in her 27 years, battling brain hemorrhages and multiple other physical maladies. Her cerebral palsy has left her quadriplegic and unable to communicate.

However, her mind remains sound. She bypassed special education classes and attended primary school with her peers. The situation got complicated after she graduated high school in 2006.

Libby’s disability left her unable to work, which is why Watts enrolled her in Illinois’ Home Services Program. The program provides monthly Medicaid stipends to allow the disabled to avoid institutionalization by paying for personal assistants. Mrs. Watts was uniquely qualified for the program: Not only had she spent 18 years caring for her daughter, she was also a licensed occupational therapist.

"I don’t need union training or their representation to take care of Libby. In fact, I could go back to work and make a lot more money, but I’m a mother so I’m all-in," Watts said.

PAs had already been unionized for three years by the time the Watts family joined the program. SEIU was able to obtain exclusive representation of the state’s 20,000 PAs shortly after Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed an executive order declaring at-home caregivers—even relatives—public employees.

They eked out a bare majority of PAs with 90 percent of signatures coming from existing union members and the support of only 10 percent of non-union caregivers.

"I wasn’t part of that vote, but non-member dues have been taken out from the very first check," she said. "When I realized that the state of Illinois had given my social security number to the union to withdraw dues without my permission, I was shocked."

Watts accepted the reality of the situation and continued to provide the best care for her daughter and two sons. However, she is supportive of the effort led by Pamela Harris, 55, to end the practice.

Harris brought the state to court after Blagojevich’s successor Pat Quinn maintained the forced unionization policy, allowing SEIU to attempt to unionize 5,000 at-home caregivers of the state’s mentally and physically disabled. Watts was eager to join the suit, Harris v. Quinn, which the Supreme Court heard arguments for Tuesday.

"I think Pamela Harris has tremendous courage and my hat is off to her," Watts said. "I respect the right for anyone to be in a union, but I’m asking SEIU and the courts to respect my right not to be in one."

Watts attended the oral arguments and walked away hopeful that the justices will see the case through the eyes of parents rather than politics. She is prepared for the case to go either way.

"Libby’s been through a lot physically and medically," Watts said. "We don’t want sympathy. I just want to maintain her dignity. I will care for her everyday regardless of the court and the union."

SEIU did not return numerous requests for comment.