Earlier this week I wrote about Pam Harris, the Western Springs, Ill., mother who is at risk of having a union siphon off state aid money meant to help her care for her disabled son.
So how is it that Harris, and so many like her, found themselves treated as employees by the state? Why don’t they want to be part of a union? And how were they able to avoid being unionized so far?
The story began in 2003, when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the first of a series of executive orders declaring that people eligible for support under various state welfare programs would be treated as “public employees” for ”fairness” under Illinois labor law. Gov. Pat Quinn picked up where Blagojevich left off, and eventually the General Assembly wrote these orders into state law. This meant they could be unionized.
Between Blagojevich and Quinn there are now three main groups of aid recipients who are treated as if they were state employees:
Each of these three groups is considered its own “bargaining unit,” meaning a single union can represent all of the beneficiaries in each of the three groups.
Illinois was not the only state to do this. According to the National Right-to-Work Committee, which is providing legal help to Harris, there are 12 states that have been pressured by unions into allowing for the unionization of home-based caregivers.
The problem is, these really aren’t government workers, and unionization just doesn’t make much sense for them. Most of the time these aid recipients are parents or relatives who are compensated by the state for taking care of injured or disabled relatives. And day care providers run their own businesses in their own homes, with some of their customers getting subsidies for day care from the state.
The bottom line is, these people aren’t hired or directed by the state. They are hired by disabled people who happen to receive state aid, or parents who need to arrange for child care, or sometimes (in Pam Harris’ case in particular) they just step forward to care for a relative and they receive state assistance for that.
But this isn’t anything like a typical job. The union negotiates with the state, but there’s not all that much for them to negotiate over – hours are determined by the needs of patients, and “working conditions” are conditions in the home.
So why do unions want to represent folks who aren’t employees? It is interesting to note that hardly any of the states that have tried this have Right-to-Work laws. That means that the union can get a clause in the contract that requires all “employees” to either join the union formally and pay dues, or pay an agency fee in lieu of dues. The union may not be in a position to do much for recipients, but it can enrich itself. These little deals can be lucrative for unions. The Service Employees International Union collected more than $34 million from the unionization of home-based child care providers in Michigan before the Legislature intervened. But after the union collects dues there’s less state aid available for the families that these programs were meant to help.
Pam Harris is actually one of the luckier ones: in 2009, when the SEIU tried to unionize her disabilities bargaining unit, she realized what was going on and reached out to her fellow caregivers. Most of them voted not to unionize, so SEIU is not “representing” them and they have access to all the funds that the state has set aside for them. But the SEIU is certain to try again, and the union did manage to unionize 70,000 caregivers in the other two bargaining units. If the results from Michigan are any indication, they are collecting dues worth several million dollars per year from families in Illinois. (We have made an inquiry to the state to determine exactly how much the dues are worth, and will report back as soon as we have an answer.)
Pam Harris is suing to bring these sneaky little deals to an end. Since she isn’t a state employee she really shouldn’t be in a position where she might have to join a union, and she shouldn’t be forced to support any private institution, like a union, so that her disabled son can benefit from a state program. Her lawsuit is in limbo right now: the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to decide whether or not to hear her appeal, and with the court in recess it could be months before she finds out if she’ll have her day in court.
Union representation for caregivers is little more than a way for unions to skim dues that were meant for families. There’s no reason Illinois should wait until the Supreme Court makes a ruling. The unions don’t deserve these funds, and the families really need them. These deals should never have been made, and should be terminated as soon as possible.Paul Kersey is Director of Labor Policy at the Illinois Policy Institute