Illinois mom vindicated by Supreme Court ruling

Pam Harris is just a mom looking after her disabled adult son. She’s not a political person.

But last week, she and her fellow plaintiffs shook the very foundations of labor law in the United States when the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 in their favor — finding that home care workers who are paid by the state are not government employees and cannot be forced to pay union dues.

The case speaks volumes about the power of an ordinary person to make a difference in our society.

In a state as cynical as Illinois, it’s easy to disregard folks such as Harris. After all, how much of a difference can one person really make when taking on the political establishment?

Well, in Harris’ case, quite a lot.

At issue was whether she and other home-based caregivers should be forced to join a union.

Rather than place her son, Josh, who needs 24-hour care, in an institution, she entered a program where she receives state assistance to care for him at home.

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

At first, Harris was perplexed. She’s not a state worker. She’s just a mom, doing what moms do — caring for her child.

And SEIU is one of the largest and most politically powerful labor organizations in the nation.

But if a majority of home care workers voted to join the union, Harris would have to give money to SEIU — whether she wanted to belong to it or not.

Harris was among those who stood up to the union and helped defeat it in a vote.

But she knew that wasn’t the end of the story. The union could just keep coming back and calling for more votes.

And Harris didn’t think she should have to give money to a union to care for her son. So she sued the state, which had helped facilitate SEIU’s organizing attempts.

The case was called Harris vs. Quinn. But it might be more aptly labeled as David vs. Goliath.

What hope does an ordinary person have in standing up to a state government and one of the nation’s most powerful unions?

I found the case intriguing, so I decided to travel to Washington, D.C., to hear it argued. I hoped to interview Harris on the steps of the Supreme Court.

I heard her attorney ask the Supreme Court justices to rule that workers such as Harris should not be forced to pay union dues or “representation fees” to unions.

Why should someone be forced to give money to a union to advocate for something they don’t believe?

SEIU and other public employee unions could see the danger of losing a lawsuit like this and did everything they could to win.

Their officials were on the steps of the court being interviewed by a gaggle of reporters. But Harris was nowhere to be found.

It surprised me. After all, it’s not every day that a person has her case argued before the Supreme Court.

But Harris stayed home looking after her son.

The case wasn’t about personal acclaim for her. It was about her and others in her situation doing what’s best for their children.

And last week, she showed how much of a difference one person can make.

Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and a journalist with Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org

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