An hour or so after the Supreme Court announced its decision in Harris v Quinn, I spoke with Pam Harris, the lead plaintiff. Harris had sued the state of Illinois, after a rule authored by the state’s governor forced her to contribute part of her son’s Social Security benefits to a public-employees’ union. As I recorded earlier in the year after the oral arguments, she contended that this was illegal:
Harris’s son, Josh, has Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome, a severe disability that has left him requiring constant care, and for the treatment of this he receives a modest stipend from the state. Under the rules, Josh has the choice of “contracting” for his care with any of the state’s approved individual providers, and, like three-quarters of the other 5,000 Illinoisans who are in his position, he wanted a family member to be his primary caregiver. Understandably, he picked his mother.
Harris does not object to the background checks or the training that she has had to undergo in order to qualify as a home health-care worker, nor does she have problem with the extensive paperwork she is required to keep each day. “That’s part of the deal,” she tells me, cheerfully. But she has balked at being forced to contract with a union — in this case the SEIU. “Everyone should have the right to say no,” she argues. “This isn’t about money — I’m a mother, and every spare dollar goes to caring for my son. But the public doesn’t want its health-care funds going into unions’ pockets, and neither do I.”
This morning the court ruled that Harris could not be compelled to join a union as a condition of her receiving the funds, a victory for her and for thousands of others in her position. “The court created a new category: partial public employees,” she told me over the phone. “This is the outcome I had hoped for. As I told you last time we spoke, I’m not anti-union, and I don’t want to ‘bash’ or ‘crush’ anybody — whatever the extreme rhetoric on the other side suggests.” Instead, she said, “I just want to care for my son without my home becoming a union workplace.” “Today,” she added, ”the Supreme Court agreed that Governor Quinn was wrong and that he acted illegally.” Effective immediately, all funds that Harris receives will go to Josh’s care.
The court’s decision was limited to “personal assistants” such as Harris, the majority opinion drawing a distinction between traditional public employees and those who are considered as such only for the purposes of representation. Unions thus escaped the crushing blow that many feared was coming. They should not, however, get too comfortable. Reading between the lines, the ruling seems to open up the possibility of a more substantial decision in the future. During oral arguments, the majority opinion’s author, Samuel Alito, was loudly skeptical that forced dues for public employees are consistent with the Constitution at all, and certain portions of his judgment reflect that, casting doubt on the long-term safety of the Abood precedent that currently governs the rules. All in all, this was a big win for a mother and her child and a loss for organized labor — but not a crippling one . . . yet.