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REEDER: Unlikely activist just putting son first

Published: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 11:05 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON – Pam Harris is just a Lake County mom looking after her disabled adult son.

She’s not a particularly political person, but on Monday, she shook the very foundations of labor law in the United States when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor.

Her case speaks volumes about the power of an ordinary person to make a difference in our society.

In a state as cynical as Illinois, it’s easy to pooh-pooh folks like Harris.

After all, how much of a difference can one person really make when taking on the political establishment?

Well, in Harris’ case, quite a lot.

At issue was whether she should be forced to join a union.

Rather than place her son, Josh, in an institution, she entered a program where she receives state assistance to care for him at home.

But one Sunday morning, an organizer from the Service Employees International Union knocked on her door and asked her to vote to join a union.

At first she was perplexed. She’s not a state worker. She’s just a mom, doing what moms do: caring for her child.  

And SEIU is one of the largest, politically powerful labor organizations in the nation.

But if a majority of home-care workers voted to join the union, she would have to give money to the union – whether she wanted to belong or not.

Harris stood up to the union and helped defeat it in a vote.

But she knew that wasn’t the end of the story. The union could just keep coming back and calling for more votes.

And Pam Harris didn’t think she should have to give money to some union boss in order to care for her son.

So Harris sued the state, which had helped facilitate the union’s organizing attempts.

The case ended up being called Harris vs. Quinn, but it might be more aptly labeled David vs. Goliath.

After all, what hope does an ordinary person have in standing up to an entire state government and one of the nation’s most powerful unions? 

I found the case intriguing, so I decided to travel to Washington to hear it argued. I hoped to interview Harris on the steps of the Supreme Court.

I heard her attorney in the courthouse ask the Supreme Court justices to rule that workers such as Harris not be forced to pay union dues or “representation fees” to unions.

After all, why should someone be forced to give money to a union to advocate for something they don’t believe?

SEIU – and other government unions – could see the danger of losing a lawsuit like this and did everything they could to win.

They were on the steps of the court being interviewed by a gaggle of reporters, but Harris was nowhere to be found.

It surprised me. After all, its not every day one has a case argued before the Supreme Court.

But Harris stayed home.

She was back in Lake County looking after her son.

The case wasn’t about personal acclaim for her. It was about her and others in her situation doing what’s best for their children. 

And on Monday, she showed how much of a difference one person can make.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and a journalist with Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org, or follow his work on Twitter @scottreeder.

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