U.S. Supreme Court should scrutinize Quinn’s plan to unionize Illinois moms and dads

Paul Kersey

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

Paul Kersey
/ Labor
July 1, 2013

U.S. Supreme Court should scrutinize Quinn’s plan to unionize Illinois moms and dads

Illinois resident Pam Harris has a son, Josh, who is 24 years old and suffers from Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome, a rare genetic malady that leaves him moderately handicapped mentally and at the same time affects his joints so that he is prone to dislocations. Josh can move around the house and do simple chores. He’s also...

Illinois resident Pam Harris has a son, Josh, who is 24 years old and suffers from Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome, a rare genetic malady that leaves him moderately handicapped mentally and at the same time affects his joints so that he is prone to dislocations.

Josh can move around the house and do simple chores. He’s also an avid Blackhawks fan. But he is unable to speak or to care for himself – he needs constant supervision, which Pam and her husband Kevin give him.

Josh is one of 5,000 or so beneficiaries of the “Illinois Home-Based Support Services program” that provides support for him and the people who care for him. The financial support allows him to stay at home and be cared for by his family, rather than in an institution.

But executive orders from the Quinn and Blagojevich administrations mandated that people like Pam and Kevin Harris are public employees eligible to be unionized under the state’s labor law.

The Quinn administration would like to arrange to have some of that money redirected to a union, based on the legal theory that Pam Harris is an employee rather than the reality that she is a mother.

With the assistance of staff attorneys from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Pam Harris and seven other Illinois homecare providers sued to have the state recognize her for who she is.

For legal and administrative purposes Pam Harris is a “Personal Support Worker” employed by her son. In reality she is a mom caring for a disabled child. Unfortunately Mrs. Harris has been forced to go all the way to the Supreme Court to force the state to give up its legal fiction.

Here’s why the legal wrangling matters: if Pam Harris and those like her can be called “employees,” then they can be unionized, and then the state can reach a contract with the union. The contract can include lots of terms that hypothetically would improve conditions for Pam if this were a regular job. The contract would also say that Pam must either join the union and pay dues, or pay a fee to the union if she doesn’t join. The dues would not be dependent on the contract doing Pam Harris or her son any good.

According to Harris’ attorney, nearly all of the beneficiaries of the support services program are families caring for their own rather than professionals who do this as a career. Union representation simply makes no sense for them – their workplaces are their homes and their “supervisors” are relatives who often need to be supervised themselves. The Harris family has had one vacation since Josh was born; they went to Florida and took Josh with them, something that is quite unusual for an employee to do for a boss, or even for a caregiver to do for a client.

Fortunately for Josh and the rest of the Harris clan, and 5,000 other families around Illinois, the unions have not managed to unionize this particular group of “employees” yet. When they tried in 2008, Pam Harris herself sounded the alarm among families and warded off the unwanted union. But the same unions are almost certain to try again if the court allows them to, and if they succeed they will be rewarded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in mandatory dues every year.

The case has made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is considering whether or not to hear arguments and render a final decision.  If they do we will have nine of the sharpest legal minds in the nation deciding whether Pam and Kevin Harris were acting as employees or parents the night they stayed up late with their son to watch the Blackhawks play in the Stanley Cup finals.

The absurdity of unionizing families, unions grasping for dues and the cynicism of the state in treating parents as if they were employees illustrates just how rotten the relationship between government and unions has become. It is a sad commentary on our state that Pam Harris has to go to the Supreme Court just so she can be a mom.

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