Imagine receiving threats from an international stronghold determined to take money from your child’s care.
That’s exactly the situation in which Pam Harris of Lake County, Illinois, found herself when she decided not to join a personal support care workers’ union. Her fight even landed her before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Pam takes care of her 27-year-old son, Josh, who has severe disabilities. Instead of placing him in a care facility, she decided to stay at home and be a personal care support worker to her son. Technically, she is a state contractor. She submitted her fingerprints, fills out monthly reports and welcomes a case officer to visit their home and check on Josh.
Josh’s Medicaid stipend technically counts towards Harris’ salary, though the family uses the money to take care of their son. According to Harris, the standards to be a part of this Medicaid program are extremely specific and rigid. It’s a hard life, but one she wouldn’t change for the world.
Harris’ problems began in 2009, when then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed an executive order mandating that personal support care workers have union representation. This meant that some of the money from Josh’s Medicaid check, which is capped by federal law, would go to a public-sector union known to spend funds on political officials’ campaigns.
In other words, Gov. Quinn’s executive order took money away from Josh and gave it to the unions without giving Harris the opportunity to opt out. What’s more, the executive order gave away confidential medical information.
“Now, our sons and daughters have to fit very specific requirements for this Medicaid program,” Harris said. “And it’s medical criteria. So, not only did he give them our names, our home addresses, he gave them confidential medical information about our sons and daughters. What a violation of our privacy. I was livid. How dare he do that?”
A general election was held for the primary support care workers to decide whether they wanted to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). They weren’t, however, told that they had the opportunity to vote against unionizing — until Pam Harris spoke out.
“Nobody was telling me and these union families what their rights were in the election,” Harris said. “I kind of became a squeaky wheel.”
In the election, voters selected neither union. However, the governor wouldn’t rescind his executive order, and the voting process repeated every year until the unions won.
Harris reached out to her representative, James Durkin, to pass a bill through the state legislature that would force the governor to rescind the order based on the election results. The Harrises and members of two other families went to the Illinois Capitol in Springfield to testify before a legislative committee and were greeted by 18,000 SEIU protestors. Despite Josh going back to the hotel because of a panic attack, Pam returned to give her testimony.
“Then it was our turn and the committee chair stood up, handed the gavel to one of the committee Republicans and all of the Democrats on the committee got up and walked out,” Harris said. “Right before they left, they all voted no. So I gave my testimony to all of three Republican committee people. That’s when I realized I wasn’t going to get any justice for my son or the participants in the program.”
Shortly thereafter Harris contacted the National Right to Work Legal Foundation (NRTW) in Washington, D.C., to see if they would represent her in a federal court case. They did, and soon the lawsuit Harris v. Quinn wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Until the lawsuit reached the high court, life had continued as normal for the Harris family. However, when it became apparent Harris had a chance to win against the unions, Harris began receiving threats, nasty phone calls and even visits to her front door.
“Once oral arguments were scheduled,” Harris said, “then it appeared that the outcome of Harris v. Quinn could indeed affect the outcome of public-sector unions, not only in Illinois, but in the United States. As a result, whenever you are a participant in an activity that is going to negatively affect someone’s bottom line, you stand to catch some repercussions for that.
“When people can’t argue or they can’t rebut your argument, they tend to attack your character,” she continued. “That’s really what happened.”
However, the fight was worth it. In June 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Pam Harris, stating that she and other primary care support workers didn’t have to join the union. It was a stunning victory propelled by one woman standing resolutely next to her disabled son, not willing to be pushed over.
Despite the hardship over the five years it took to get the case through the system and into the Supreme Court, Harris wouldn’t change a thing.
“No, I didn’t make any money,” Harris said. “No, I got nothing out of this other than a great respect for our country’s judicial system … I’ve learned that if you’re a mom in Illinois and you’re being wronged, that there is a process to follow. It takes time. It takes sacrifice. But in the end, you have these nine brilliant minds, who heard both sides, and decided that I was right and Gov. Quinn was wrong.”
Harris is grateful to have had the opportunity to stand up for the sanctity of the family.
“There’s great satisfaction in knowing that the freedom to choose and to protect our families remains intact,” Harris said. “The idea of the SEIU or AFSCME or any public-sector unions intruding into family homes and inserting union contracts between the carer who provides for their disabled son or daughter is chilling. It’s frightening. We should never open ourselves to that possibility.
“We must do what we can to protect that bond between parent and child.”