Part of the Washington Examiner's weeklong commentary series on labor unions. To see the entire series, click here.
Until the union came calling, Pamela Harris was an Illinois homemaker devoted to caring for her developmentally disabled son, Josh.
Now she's the lead plaintiff in Harris v. Quinn, a Supreme Court case legal experts think could dramatically restrict Big Labor's ability to organize in the public sector.
Harris has taken care of Josh, 25, in her home since 2007 with assistance from her state's Medicaid-funded Home Services Program.
A five-chapter special report by the Washington Examiner.
- Chapter 1: Big Labor’s identity crisis
- » Big Labor's identity crisis
- » The decline of the labor union
- » Diana Furchtgott-Roth: Public employees unions help boost state debt crisis
- Chapter 2: Unions and the Democratic Party
- » Democrats know better than to bite the Big Labor hand that feeds them
- » Steven Malanga: When unions use non-member dues to finance political activities
- Chapter 3: Right to work vs. Card Check: Unions face challenges
- » Despite repeated failures, Card Check still top Big Labor priority
- » Right-to- work surge is reviving America's Rust Belt
- » Unions in right-to-work states make opting out nearly impossible
- » Q&A: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
- » Q&A: Indiana Gov. Mike Pence
- Chapter 4: Forced unionism: The SEIU and Illinois home health care workers
- » Illinois politicians forced home care workers into union that donates heavily to them
- » Forced unionization turned Illinois homemaker into Supreme Court plaintiff in Harris v. Quinn case
- Chapter 5: Employee Rights Act defines efforts to reinvent the union
- » Big Labor turns left even as workers, lawmakers form new union models for the future
- » James Sherk: Want to help workers? Reinvent the union
- » Richard Berman: Employee Rights Act would make unions accountable to members
- » Q&A: Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch
- » Q&A: Georgia Rep. Tom Price
“He’s my first thought in the morning and my last thought at night, and every night my prayer is to live one more day than he does,” she told the Washington Examiner.
But in 2009, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat who received heavy support from the Services Employees International Union, issued an executive order that said the program's 4,500 workers for the mentally disabled were state employees and therefore eligible for union representation.
SEIU, which gets $10 million annually in dues from caregivers for the physically disabled, stood to reap about $2 million a year from organizing workers in the program that helped Harris. But she saw it as taking money from her son’s care.
“I’m against money being taken from Josh’s support and services to pay the union,” she said.
Harris quickly found out that her priorities were not those of the state — or the union. Her inquiries hit a wall of bureaucratic opposition.
It all began for her when SEIU organizers knocked on her front door one day. The state had given them her contact information without her knowledge.
The organizers told Harris the union could use its clout to get more money into the program. She could get time and half, benefits and even vacation. But Harris didn’t buy it.
Increasing funding in one part of the program just meant less funding elsewhere. And more pay for her would likely mean fewer hours that could be charged to the state for Josh’s care.
“This program is capped. There is X amount of dollars, specifically three times [Supplemental Security Income]. SSI is determined by the federal government,” she said.
Being a union member also meant that her home would become a union workplace. SEIU officials would have the right to enter it anytime they chose for an inspection.
“Union workplaces have to display a union bulletin board. I ask you: Does that go over the family mantle?” she said.
She politely but firmly told SEIU’s organizers no, but they persisted.
“On the first SEIU visit, I was presented with a white card and a pen to sign so they could show their bosses that they did come to talk to me,” Harris said. It sounded fishy to her, so she didn’t sign.
“I later found out that it was the union’s signature card,” she said. That is, it was a “Card Check” vote that would have been used by SEIU to claim she wanted to join.
Labor officials knocked on her door twice more. The second one was a “big, burly, linebacker-looking guy” who again asked her to sign a card. She again refused.
The third was an SEIU official who told Harris she could get a well-paying part-time job with the union that she could do at home. “It was a bribe,” she said.
The state meanwhile sent Harris a form letter to explain things. “It was a very brief letter and it pretty much said, ‘Yes, the governor signed an executive order. It’s copied on the back. If you have any questions, call this person at this number.’ ”
So she called the number and spoke to a state official. “He said: ‘There is nothing I can share with you that isn’t in the executive order.’ ”
Harris asked a state social worker, who periodically visited her to check on Josh, for more information. She also said she couldn’t share anything beyond the executive order.
“They were not allowed to answer any of our questions about what unionization would mean. There was not one entity who was responsible for telling the families what their rights were,” Harris said.
So she researched the issue on her own late at night while Josh slept.
Harris learned that Quinn’s order did not require workers join a union. It merely said they were eligible to have one.
But once a union could claim it had the backing of more than 50 percent of caregivers — through cards like the one SEIU tried to get Harris to sign — the state could grant it exclusive representation rights.
That would require all of the workers, even those who never signed a card, to at least pay SEIU a “representation” fee.
The lucky break came when other unions wanted in on the potential financial windfall. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees challenged SEIU for representation of the workers like Harris.
That set up a mail-in ballot where workers could have their say on which union would represent them, or whether they wanted one at all.
Harris filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the state demanding the same worker contact information that the unions got.
She then sent all of the families in the program a letter urging them to vote and pointing out there was a third option called “no union representation.”
It was all done on her kitchen table and at a Kinkos. The funds were mainly donations from other families in the program.
“I’d get the mail ... and it would be, ‘Here’s $5.’ ‘Here’s a check for $20.’ I still have all of those letters. It was the most heartwarming, supportive inspiration,” Harris said.
The caregivers soundly rejected unionization by a 2-1 margin in the October 2009 mail-in vote. SEIU and AFSCME did not even get 40 percent of the vote combined. Harris was there for the vote count: “The single most exhilarating experience I’ve ever had,” she said.
But Quinn did not rescind the executive order, meaning the unions remain free to keep trying. Harris then reached out to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation to challenge the governor's order.
Oral arguments at the Supreme Court were heard in January. The justices are expected to rule on the case in June.
Harris says she is just happy to have had her day in court.
“A mom in Illinois raised her hand and said, ‘This isn’t right,’ ” she marveled. “The system really does work.”