Harris v. Quinn detractors are missing the point

Paul Kersey

Labor law expert, occasional smart-aleck, defender of the free society.

Paul Kersey
/ Labor
July 24, 2014

Harris v. Quinn detractors are missing the point

Since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Harris v. Quinn, union supporters – including many politicians who have benefitted from union support themselves – have written articles and statements bemoaning the decision. These pieces have been notable for the things they don’t talk about: who the plaintiffs actually were and what the court...

Since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Harris v. Quinn, union supporters – including many politicians who have benefitted from union support themselves – have written articles and statements bemoaning the decision. These pieces have been notable for the things they don’t talk about: who the plaintiffs actually were and what the court actually decided.

The article published on July 16 in the Chicago Sun-Times, “Taking care of our caretakers,” by Attorney General Lisa Madigan and U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, is as good an example as any. The two officials describe the Harris v. Quinn ruling in one sentence, saying that the decision “makes it harder for home care workers in Illinois to get decent wages and benefits.” End of story.

Here’s what was going on, and what the Supreme Court decided: Pam Harris is a mom caring for her son, Josh, who suffers from a severe disability. He requires around-the-clock attention, which Pam gladly gives him, and she receives a modest Medicaid benefit from the state that helps her with the cost this care. The arrangement saves the state money because Josh isn’t institutionalized, and Josh gets to stay at home with the people who care about him the most.

The catch is that Pam isn’t a state employee and doesn’t think of herself as one. So Harris, and most of her peers, don’t see the point in unionizing. But Govs. Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn tried to force Pam Harris and those like her into a union anyway. This was done with one group of 20,000 caregivers through the use of a very irregular card-check process, and since then, the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, has collected a total of $20 million in mandatory dues from them.

What the Supreme Court decided was that that people like Pam Harris, who aren’t actually state employees, cannot be forced to pay dues to a union.

Note what the Supreme Court did not decide: it does not prevent family caregivers like Pam Harris from joining a union should they feel it is in their best interest. And it does not prevent unions from representing them. In fact, the SEIU is proceeding with a union vote for home health-care workers in Minnesota.

Madigan and Perez go on to warn us that with an aging population, Illinois and the nation as a whole are likely to need more caregivers, and without adequate pay those will be hard to find. That may be true, but of course unionization is not the only way for workers to secure good wages and benefits. In fact, if the demand for this sort of work does increase dramatically, wages should rise naturally without union involvement.

But even if one is skeptical about market forces, the Harris v. Quinn ruling wouldn’t affect any caregivers who are hired and assigned by the state. It simply says that you can’t force family caregivers like Pam Harris to pay dues to a union that they do not want to join.

It says a lot about union officials and certain politicians when their main takeaway from this historic ruling is that, since they aren’t entitled to dues, the Supreme Court must not care about caregivers.

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