Pam Harris (right) and her son Joshua
Pam Harris (right) and her son Joshua

Family matters in the other Supreme Court decision

Supreme Court

Though almost lost in the noise surrounding the Hobby Lobby decision last Monday, the Supreme Court’s ruling on Harris v. Quinn is considered by some observers to be at least as significant.

The chief plaintiff in the case is Pam Harris, an in-home caretaker in Illinois who was minding her own business one day when a representative of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) knocked on her door and invited her to join. Though she declined, Harris, who receives a stipend from the state in return for caring for her patient, was compelled to contribute to the SEIU, supposedly in return for “collective bargaining” purposes. Harris never saw any collective bargaining, only money out of her pocket—money she could have put to better use because the one patient she cares for is her own son Joshua.

Her son, who suffers from the rare but debilitating Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome, is one of roughly 5,000 disabled Illinois residents who receive state funds for their care, most of which is provided by their own family members. In 2003 Gov. Pat Quinn declared such homes as “workplaces,” eligible for union representation. When the SEIU wouldn’t take no for an answer, Harris decided to fight back, all the way to the Supreme Court.

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“This is really cool,” she told the Washington Examiner after Monday’s decision. “I don’t have to worry—and other families don’t have to worry—their homes will become union workplaces.”

Naturally, the SEIU and its defenders don’t think it’s “really cool” that a 5-4 majority on the high court blocked their home invasion. Opponents trotted out the “women and minorities hardest hit” meme, citing that the vast majority of home healthcare workers are female, many African-American or immigrant. The Nation charged a “gang” of five conservative justices with lobbing “a small grenade into the trenches of the labor movement.” The grenade is small because court-watchers had feared the decision would rule out all non-member union payments, known as “agency fees.” That didn’t happen, but the decision authored by Justice Samuel Alito created a new class of worker, the “partial-public” employee: a certified individual receiving state funds but “employed” by the patient at the patient’s home. Most of these workers are understood to be family members, but to critics of the decision, that’s a distinction without a difference. 

Jennifer Klein and Eileen Boris, co-authors of Caring for America, write, “Harris reduces a state regulated labor market to individualized acts of love and obligation, furthering the agenda of well-funded anti-union forces.” Think about that: They’re upset about the labor market being reduced to love. “Acts of love and obligation” are what families do, and states can help by supplying needed funds. But the intrusion of a union makes the home an arm of government. Klein and Boris are quite clear about that: “Home care belongs to the growth of the modern welfare state, which depends on workers to administer its services”—even if the “worker” is better known as Mom. Thank heaven Pam Harris fought and won, but opponents so invested in the welfare state have certainly not given up.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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