What’s at stake in Harris v. Quinn

Paul Kersey

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

Paul Kersey
/ Labor
June 25, 2014

What’s at stake in Harris v. Quinn

As early as today, the U.S. Supreme Court could announce its decision in the case Harris v. Quinn. Legal experts and unions across the country are watching closely as it could be a landmark decision on the issues of unionization and freedom of speech. The lead plaintiff, Pam Harris, is a suburban Chicago mom whose...

As early as today, the U.S. Supreme Court could announce its decision in the case Harris v. Quinn. Legal experts and unions across the country are watching closely as it could be a landmark decision on the issues of unionization and freedom of speech.

The lead plaintiff, Pam Harris, is a suburban Chicago mom whose son Josh suffers from a rare genetic defect that has left him mentally and physically disabled. The Harris family is among thousands of families in Illinois who participate in a Medicaid program that offers a modest benefit to families of people with disabilities. But a few years ago, the Quinn administration issued an executive order to unionize Harris and others in this program, calling them state workers for the sole purpose of unionization. If the unionization of Harris’ program were successful – as other unionization-by-executive-order efforts have been in Illinois – government unions could make millions of dollars from forced dues (not to mention the political leverage that this cash infusion would give unions eager to reward friendly politicians). The Illinois Policy Institute has filed an amicus brief in this case. Like Harris’ lead attorneys, we are hoping that the high court will use this ruling to bar government unions from collecting mandatory dues from all employees.

A lot is at stake in this case. Here are three possible outcomes:

1) The court rules that familiar caregivers can be unionized. This result would be very disappointing for Harris and thousands of families across Illinois who rely on state assistance to help them care for loved ones. Parents of children with disabilities may find that money they counted on to help with expenses and lost wages as they tended to their children was being redirected to a union they don’t support.

This result could also be catastrophic for Americans who value their freedom to speak out. If the court allows for Harris and those like her to be unionized, anyone who receives government assistance or subsidies – the store that sells groceries to food stamp recipients, the doctor who serves Medicare or Medicaid patients, or the landlord who rents to a Section 8 recipient – could find themselves unionized soon enough.

2) The court blocks familial caregivers such as Harris from being unionized, but goes no further. This would return things to where they were before now-disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (and governors in several other states) began the whole sordid practice of unionizing participants in government social programs: employees can be unionized and forced to pay union dues, but not anyone else.

Pam Harris can return to caring for her son Josh, and does not have to worry about unwanted union organizers. 20,000 other families in Illinois who have already been unionized can look forward to receiving their full benefits without having any funds diverted to a union – a change worth more than $10 million a year. Day-care providers who receive state subsidies for taking in children from poor families will probably be cut loose too, putting another $10 million back into the pockets of Illinois families. Day-care providers and Medicaid recipients in other states will be able to break ties from unwanted unions as well.

3) The court bars all government unions from collecting forced dues (most desirable outcome). The court may decide that Pam Harris’ situation – a government union forcing itself upon people who aren’t even employees – demonstrates that forced dues in government are fundamentally wrong and prohibit them outright. This would be a huge win for the First Amendment and over the long haul for citizens in Illinois and many other states where government unions hold sway.

This decision would not be the end of unions in government. Many government employees will support unions voluntarily, and state law in Illinois and other states will call for collective bargaining to continue.

But thousands of public school teachers, police officers and clerks throughout Illinois, not to mention other states, would be free to decide for themselves whether the union deserves their support. As union power recedes, the rest of us will gain a more accountable government.

Needless to say, this would be by far the best outcome for Pam Harris, Illinoisans and families across the nation.

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