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Reeder: Illinois mom threatens union clout nationwide

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder

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Updated: March 3, 2014 1:39PM



Pam Harris is an unlikely activist. She’s 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.

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

It threw Harris for a loop. 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 do that to be able to care for her son.

So Harris led a drive among caregivers to reject union representation and they won.

But the story doesn’t end there. SEIU can keep calling for union 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, D.C., to hear it argued.

Harris doesn’t consider herself anyone’s employee, yet alone someone ripe for union organizing.

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

But Quinn, as a Democratic governor seeking re-election, is a different sort of boss. So was his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, who also issued similar orders.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito expressed skepticism of Blagojevich’s motivation 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?”

That’s an interesting observation.

By the way, between 2002 and 2012, Quinn received $2.97 million in campaign contributions from public employee unions, of which $1.39 million came from SEIU.

If Harris and the other plaintiffs win their case, it could reshape labor law for government workers across the nation.

Her attorney asked the Supreme Court to rule that public employees cannot be forced to pay union dues or “representation fees” to unions. Please remember that’s how half 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’s something called freedom of speech in our Constitution.

SEIU and other unions that represent large numbers of public workers see the peril of losing a lawsuit such as this. It could result in them no longer being able to get dues from all members, just those who want to belong to a union and are willing to pay for it.

So not surprisingly, the unions 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 Supreme Court that they hoped that their caregivers could be unionized.

And some home-care workers who want to belong to a union told reporters why they thought organized labor was swell.

But glancing around at all the reporters and TV cameras, one couldn’t help but wonder, where is Pam Harris? 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 wasn’t at the Supreme Court Building. She wasn’t even in Washington.

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, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.



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