Meet the Plaintiff

Mother caring for disabled son seeks rollback of forced unionization

Supreme Court
January 21, 2014

A 55-year-old woman who earns less than minimum wage caring for her disabled son could unravel decades of labor law and strike a blow against one of the most powerful political lobbies in the nation.

Pamela Harris is fighting an Illinois law crafted by imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D.) and enforced by his successor Pat Quinn (D.) that forces her and other home healthcare workers to pay union dues. Her case, Harris v. Quinn, begins oral arguments at the Supreme Court on Tuesday morning

"I don’t want to be the face and name associated with anti-union campaign, but this is at its heart a mother doing what she thinks is right for her son," she told the Washington Free Beacon. "I don’t see this as a union issue, but the current administration in Illinois has an unhealthy relationship with public sector unions. We got swept up in that."

Her son Josh, 25, has a rare muscular genetic disease called Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome that has left him intellectually disabled, non-communicative, and unable to control his body. She bathes him, brushes his teeth, pops his dislocated limbs back into place, and takes him to meetings with doctors, specialists, and therapists.

He communicates to Mrs. Harris, his full-time caregiver, through an iPad app, but the majority of the work is done by a mother’s intuition.

"The state faces scant availability of personal care workers, especially those willing to work with Josh," Harris said. "It yields better outcomes of care for the individuals when cared for with people they trust—it takes years of observation and honestly someone who loves to give Josh the care he needs."

Josh receives $721 each month from Medicaid to cover the costs of the constant supervision he requires, a far cheaper alternative to institutionalization. The money is divided between Mrs. Harris, the occupational therapist who massages his limbs to prevent dislocations, the speech therapist who teaches him how to chew and swallow, and the physical therapist who keeps him ambulatory, as well as medical professionals that help keep Josh healthy.

Under the agreement reached by Governors Blagojevich and Quinn, the Harris family would have to funnel a portion of that money to public sector unions, including Democratic allies such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

The government is arguing that because people like Harris receive taxpayer money, they are state employees subject to union dues, though not the pensions and liability coverage that their fellow public sector workers receive. Harris was puzzled by the classification, considering that unions cannot negotiate other benefits for her family because the Medicaid program is capped.

"One penny, one dollar taken out of [the monthly stipend] is taken out of support or services for Josh," she said. "Being in a union is incompatible, intrusive, and going to interfere with the care I provide. The union is there to protect the union worker, so I don’t see how Josh benefits."

Unions have received a windfall from the political decisions of Illinois’ Democratic governors, according to the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI). An IPI Freedom of Information Act request found that SEIU received more than $52 million over five years from about 20,000 home healthcare workers, many of whom are caring for relatives.

"The lawsuit is about a government union taking advantage of political clout to push people into a union, so SEIU could skim dues money and a lot of that money found its way back into politicians’ hands," said IPI labor expert Paul Kersey. "These are parents and relatives taking care of disabled family members, not state employees. They shouldn’t have to worry about the funds they need being redirected to unions."

Harris raised these issues, as well as her concerns about the quality of Josh’s care to Quinn, in a private meeting to no avail. She did not become active in the fight against the policy until she was bombarded with visits from SEIU organizers.

"There were constant visits, phone calls, bright literature stuffed in the mailbox, text messages, robocalls all talking about how great SEIU was. It was upsetting," Harris said. "I want to see families in Illinois who do not have to wake up one more day under the threat of relentless, aggressive union campaigning."

She said she hopes to find some quiet time on Tuesday afternoon to listen to audio of the oral arguments on the Supreme Court’s website, but that depends on how Josh is feeling.

"He is my first thought in the morning and my last thought at night and I pray each night that I live one more day with him."

Published under: AFSCME , SEIU , Unions