By Eric Peterson and Wesley Coopersmith
This past week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the case of Harris V Quinn, which could set the course of union policy in the years to come. At the heart of the case is whether the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) can force home care workers, who are Medicaid recipients, to join their union. The woman who brought this case before the court, Pamela Harris, has a developmentally disabled son named Josh. Pamela works around the clock providing her son the intensive care he needs. She doesn’t view this work as a career, but rather as an extension of her motherly love. SEIU doesn’t see it this way. This union sees Pamela as an employee who must pay her fair share of union dues.
In the past, labor unions, like SEIU, fought to protect the vulnerable like Pamela, but today their interest lies with protecting their own political clout. SEIU’s relationship with caregivers in Illinois began with an executive order from Governor Rod Blagojevich and continues today. Two months after his election in 2003, Blagojevich gave exclusive representation rights for rehabilitation providers to the SEIU. After Blagojevich’s indictment, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn continued his predecessor’s quid pro quo relationship with unions, issuing another executive order granting the SEIU exclusive representation rights for providers in the disabilities program. Not surprisingly, SEIU has been one of the biggest contributors to both Blagojevich and Quinn. The SEIU contributed over $800,000 to Blagojevich’s first election effort and over $900,000 to his second. A combined effort by all SEIU affiliated groups gave over 4 million dollars to Quinn’s reelection bid in 2010.
While this may seem a hefty investment for a union to make, the payoffs have been even greater. Since 2008, the SEIU has collected over $52 million from over 20,000 home workers like Pamela. Many of these workers receive far less from Medicaid than they would make working at a minimum wage job, and these union dues mean that they have even less in their wallets. .
In Pamela’s own words “One penny, one dollar taken out of [the monthly stipend] is taken out of support or services for Josh. Being in a union is incompatible, intrusive, and going to interfere with the care I provide. The union is there to protect the union worker, so I don’t see how Josh benefits.” Indeed the only benefit Josh and Pamela receive is in the form of loose “advocacy” from the SEIU. She remains ineligible for benefits such as pensions or healthcare that other union members enjoy.
This advocacy, as it has been argued in front of the Supreme Court, could be a violation of Pamela’s First Amendments rights as her mandatory association with the Union is by nature, political. Overturning this order could open the door for other industries to challenge forced unionization. While upholding it could lead to more vulnerable people like Pamela being force to give their hard earned money to causes they don’t believe in. While the outcome of the case remains uncertain, one thing remains clear: unions will take every measure to collect dues and protect their political clout, even if it comes at the expense of hardworking and vulnerable Americans like Pamela and Josh.