WASHINGTON, D.C. — Pamela Harris says she had one reason for going to battle with the powerful Service Employees International Union.
“I don’t want anyone to get between me and caring for my son,” Harris said Monday, shortly after learning the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to government unions that sought to organize home-care workers and others not directly employed by government.
The high court ruled 5-4 that groups, such as home-care workers, cannot be compelled to pay representation fees or dues to labor unions.
Harris, a Lake County mother, is caring for her adult disabled son, Josh, and receiving assistance from the state of Illinois to do so.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn issued an executive order designating Harris and other home-care workers as “state employees” for the purpose of joining a union.
Service Employees International Union, a political ally of the governor, then began trying to organize the workers.
“I think there is a very unhealthy relationship between politicians and the unions,” Harris said. “I only wish Governor Quinn had listened to us five years ago when we said we didn’t want to join the union.”
Harris and other workers argue they are not government employees capable of being unionized in the traditional sense. They contend they are different because they work in people’s homes, not on government property, and are not supervised by other state employees.
While the sector of workers Harris is a part of was affected by an executive order issued by Quinn, Rod Blagojevich issued similar orders while he was governor.
During oral arguments earlier this year, Justice Samuel Alito expressed skepticism of governors’ motivations to help unions.
“I thought the situation was that Gov. Blagojevich got a huge campaign contribution from the union,” Alito said. “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?”
It was Alito who ended up writing the majority opinion for the high court.
Alito noted that the state does not treat these home-care workers as employees in any sense but to join a union. For example, the state has no legal liability if home-care workers harm those in their care.
“Just as the state denies personal assistants most of the rights and benefits enjoyed by full-fledged state workers, the state does not assume responsibility for actions taken by personal assistants during the course of their employment,” Alito said in his opinion. “So if a personal assistant steals from a customer, neglects a customer, or abuses a customer, the state washes its hands.”
Patrick Wright, vice president for legal affairs at the Mackinaw Center for Public Policy, said the decision is one of the most significant labor-law decisions in decades.
“What the unions were trying to do is radically redefine what constitutes a public employee,” he said. “This is an enormous setback for them and will cost them millions of dollars.”
The decision also lays the groundwork for a possible future decision in which the high court may rule that the state cannot compel any public employee to pay money to a union, Wright said.
But Illinois Attorney Lisa Madigan, whose office argued the case against Harris, said the state does have a compelling interest in promoting union representation of these workers.
Additionally, State Rep. Mike Smiddy, D-Hillsdale, called the ruling “upsetting.”
“I’m disappointed in the ruling,” he said. “It takes rights away from thousands of workers who rely on very little benefits and very little representation, and the unions’ ability to protect these workers was taken away from them. It’s upsetting.”
State Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said Monday’s decision sent an important message that caregivers should have the authority to determine the care of their loved ones.
“I applaud the United States Supreme Court’s decision today by siding with Illinoisans Pam and Josh Harris by ruling that a home is not a union shop and that the sensitive decisions regarding the care for a disabled loved one needs to remain with the caregiver and in the home,” he said in a statement to the media. “Pam Harris speaks for the thousands of parents and family members who serve as caregivers. No one other than Pam Harris knows what’s best for Josh and the United States Supreme Court agrees.”
SEIU disagreed with the ruling, and said it reduces the power of workers to earn more money and receive more benefits.
“No court case is going to stand in the way of home care workers coming together to have a strong voice for good jobs and quality home care,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry in a media release. “At a time when wages remain stagnant and income inequality is out of control, joining together in a union is the only proven way home care workers have of improving their lives and the lives of the people they care for.”
The SEIU statement lamented the loss of the ability to train home workers through collected dues, and said home-care workers are now worse off because of the court’s decision.
“States need to build a stable, qualified workforce to meet the growing need for home care — and having a strong union for home care workers is the only approach that has proven effective,” the statement said.