Unionizing moms and dads
The settling of the Harris case settles nothing
Pamela Harris won her case, and the U.S. Supreme Court won another skirmish in its war against the liberal consensus. What Illinois’ disabled and dependent citizens won is less clear.
Chicago-area resident Pamela Harris is the mother who cares at home for her 25-year-old son who’s had severe intellectual and developmental disabilities from birth, with the help of a stipend from the Illinois Medicaid program. She was among the 30 percent or so of the 26,000 home-care workers in Illinois who voted not to join the Service Employees International Union. The dissenters, as is customary, were obliged to pay some union dues anyway, which requirement spurred Harris in 2010 to sue the State of Illinois and its nominal governor, complaining that being forced to subsidize the union in this way amounted to what her lawyers called a “pernicious form of compelled expressive association” that violated her First Amendment rights.
There would not seem to be much to dispute here at the level of principle. The arrangement with Service Employees International Union was expressly drafted to avoid any conflicts with First Amendment rights. Unwilling union members are not required to pay that portion of dues that finance the union’s lobbying and other political activities. They do pay so-called “fair share” fees that cover only the costs of negotiating pay and benefits for all members and associated administration costs.
Bargaining for a better deal on behalf of members would hardly seem to be political speech of the sort protected by the First Amendment, but Harris insists, fairly if fastidiously, that bread-and-butter negotiations are political matters if the public pays for the outcome. Specifically, Harris complains that by lobbying for more money for members, the SEIU asks the General Assembly to slice a too-small Medicaid pie too thin. As Harris put it in an online rejoinder to a vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, the case was about “moms fighting to stop IL Gov Quinn’s attempt to force us to join a union and take Medicaid funding from our disabled sons and daughters.”
Harris apparently does not believe that giving higher pay to care-providers such as herself benefits her son. Perhaps it doesn’t, in the sense that she’s not doing it for the money. (The median income for a household in her hometown is nearly $73,000, that of the state as a whole is a bit more than $55,000.) But most caregivers under this program, in spite of Harris’ incessant characterization of them as “moms and dads,” are not family members doing it out of love or duty. They do it for a living, and before they were unionized it was a crap living. Home care workers were paid $7.25 an hour and lacked health benefits – incentives likely to attract only people to whom a job burger-flipping is a dream too far. The inevitable result was high turnover and often indifferent performance.
“We don’t want a union contract inserted between us and our disabled sons and daughters,” she wrote, but I have yet to hear her explain how (as she put it) “unionizing moms and dads” will “interfere in care.” I have heard her complain about having to keep time logs, which she clearly resents. Which raises an issue. Not only Harris’ interests are at stake here. The public funds Medicaid, and they have a right to expect that the money spent on home care be spent efficiently and well. Is it intrusive for the state to demand that a “mom” keep a time-log that records her diligence? Yes. Is it intrusive for the state to expect recordkeeping of a paid caregiver? I don’t think so. Harris seems not to accept that she is a health-care worker, and that her check is sent to her as an agent of the state, not as a mom. Would she have the state spend the taxpayers’ money without oversight?
The plaintiff concluded with this Harris-in-Wonderland assertion: “There are too few workers willing to care for significantly disabled adults and research shows family care yields positive outcomes.” Both true, but there are too few families willing and able to care for their significantly disabled adult members either. And the reason there are too few non-family workers willing to do the job is because the state didn’t pay enough to attract people who were willing to do it.
Mrs. Harris, if you are offended in principle by the idea of paying dues used to deliver benefits you don’t want or need, you can, as an act of conscience, return the extra money received as a result of union bargaining. If you are offended by speech intended to persuade the state to increase your pay, raise your own voice in opposition. It is the people of Illinois who ought to decide such things, not five superannuated sages on the Supreme Court.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com
Editor’s note: James Krohe wrote the column that appeared in this space last week. The byline of Erika Holst appeared over it by mistake.