How an Illinois mom set the stage for monumental Janus decision
What Harris has in common with Janus is immense courage. Both show the power of a single individual, an Illinoisan, to change the course of the state and the nation.
Despite how monumental they often are, the Supreme Court releases its decisions with little fanfare.
They are announced in the mornings, with more frequency in June and mostly on Mondays. Typically, a few boxes of copies are released for reporters to grab, including bloggers from SCOTUSblog who then scramble to post updates.
That’s how the rest of the world finds out.
So, for a few mornings this June, Pam Harris found herself in the same routine she followed four years earlier: sitting on her couch, coffee in hand, laptop open, carefully tracking SCOTUSblog, waiting for a ruling.
Finally, on June 27, she got her result.
Harris watched the court rule in favor of the plaintiff in Janus v. AFSCME, the culmination of a journey that flowed through her home not so long ago.
“I’m just so damn proud,” she said from her home in northern Illinois. “I’m proud of the work that we did, the groundwork that we laid. I’m proud to be from Illinois today.”
For people like Pam, Janus is a historic victory for those who have fallen victim to government union overreach in Illinois. In 2014, she was the plaintiff in another marquee labor case before the U.S. Supreme Court: Harris v. Quinn.
Pam provides around-the-clock care for her son, Josh, who lives with a rare genetic condition called Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome. Her family receives a modest Medicaid subsidy to defray the costs of that care. But because of that stipend, then-Gov. Pat Quinn – in concert with the Service Employees International Union – chose to define Harris and Illinoisans like her as government workers. This meant that a piece of every check flowed not to Josh’s care, but to SEIU coffers.
Pam was born into a union-friendly, Democratic family on Chicago’s southwest side. But the SEIU scheme was a bridge too far. Pam and eight other home health care workers sued the governor, arguing the cash grab violated their First Amendment rights.
Writing for the majority in Harris v. Quinn, Justice Samuel Alito called into question precedent established in a 1977 case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. Under Abood, government worker unions were allowed to collect what are called “fair share” fees from a worker’s paycheck, even if he or she did not want to support the union agenda.
For more than 40 years, this precedent allowed government worker unions in Illinois and many other states to extract millions of dollars from unwilling educators, firefighters and other public-sector workers.
But Harris cracked open the door to ending those fees. And the Janus case just blew off the hinges.
In the Janus ruling, Alito, again writing for the majority, placed Harris’ fight among the trinity of recent cases calling Abood into question. The court ruled government unions “may no longer extract” fees from “nonconsenting employees.” To do so would violate the First Amendment.
Proponents of Illinois’ government-union-dominated political system called the ruling an affront to the working class. Two arguments were common:
“I have to pay taxes and the government does things I don’t like. Does Janus mean I don’t have pay taxes?”
Government is government and unions are not. Different standards apply. Agency fees are better viewed as compulsory donations to a political party than a tax to fund public services.
“Unions are now shackled with having to represent people who don’t pay them.”
What kind of oligarch devised such an oppressive system? The unions. They cheered on Gov. Jim Thompson in 1983 as he signed two laws granting unions monopoly power to represent all government workers in Illinois – even those who are not union members.
If unions have serious worries about this self-imposed burden, they should tell House Speaker Mike Madigan to release House Bill 673 from the Rules Committee. Stuck there for more than a year, the bill allows government workers who have opted out of union membership to bargain independently with their employer.
The Janus case was about one thing: workers’ First Amendment rights.
But beyond the legalities, what Harris has in common with Janus is immense courage. Both show the power of a single individual, an Illinoisan, to change the course of the state and the nation.
“More than anything I would like to thank him,” Pam said. “I know the courage that it takes … this was the right man for the job.”