An Illinois woman who took her fight against one of the nation's most powerful unions all the way to the Supreme Court and won, said all she ever wanted was to care for her ailing son.
Pam Harris, the lead plaintiff in the landmark Harris v. Quinn case, in which the high court ruled people who care for loved ones in their home can't be compelled to join the Service Employees International Union, said the ruling was a victory for her son Josh, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder.
"It means no third party intrusion, it means that there's not going to be a union contract inserted between my son and I, there's not going to be union rules and regulations dictating how I can provide the care that Josh needs," she said.
"I don't rock the boat. But when it comes to taking public funding intended for people with disabilities, someone has to stand up."
- Pam Harris
Harris is the primary caregiver for her 25-year-old son, who suffers from Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome. His illness has left him mentally and physically disabled and in need of ‘round the clock care at his home in Winthrop Harbor, Ill.
“We feed him, help him wash his face, shave him, brush his teeth,” she said.
The family receives a Medicaid check each month for approximately $1,300 to care for Josh, but its "not nearly enough" to pay for all his medical bills and other needs. In order to receive that check, under state law, the Harris family must undergo eleven visits per year by state employees checking on Josh’s welfare, be required to submit monthly summaries detailing care on a time sheet and provide specific information about Josh’s care.
And, until Monday's ruling, join a union.
That last requirement came from an executive order signed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, which made home healthcare workers state employees, and those state employees must be part of the powerful Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. Harris tried to fight the order, which she said she learned about when two SEIU members came knocking on her door a few years ago.
Joining the union meant the Harris home would become a union shop, the Harris family would have to start following union rules within their home and some of the money provided by the state to care for Josh for would be deducted for union dues. Harris estimates about $90 per month came out of the check and went to the SEIU.
Harris fought back and won a decision with far-reaching implications.
“I don't want to be forced to join a union and I'll be darned if I'm going to let the union take Josh's support .” she said. “Filing a lawsuit was a last resort” she said.
While the decision does not completely punch a hole into unions, it does make separation for those who care for family at home.
The court ruling handed down today cites the First Amendment and states that "… no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support. The First Amendment prohibits the collection of an agency fee from personal assistants in the Rehabilitation Program who do not want to join or support the union."
Union leaders had argued that they work hard to improve benefits for state employees and its only fair that all state employees help pay for those efforts.
In response to today's ruling the SEIU put out a statement which said in part "…The ruling places at risk a system of consumer-directed home care in Illinois that has proven successful in raising wages, providing affordable health care benefits, and increasing training. The number of elderly Americans will increase dramatically in the coming years. States need to build a stable, qualified workforce to meet the growing need for home care--and having a strong union for home care workers is the only approach that has proven effective."
Paul Kersey, of the Illinois Policy Institute, said the case shows unions went "way too far by organizing families."
"At the heart of Harris v. Quinn is a mom who's trying to do what’s right for her son and protect his supports and services,” he said.
Harris told Fox News she never intended to create such a national firestorm and that she is not anti-union.
"I am anything but an activist," Harris said. "I don't rock the boat. But when it comes to taking public funding intended for people with disabilities, someone has to stand up."