Supreme Court rules against unions in Illinois case

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Home health care workers and the people who depend on them vowed Monday to keep trying to grow the workers’ union even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the workers cannot be required to pay fees that help cover the union’s costs of collective bargaining.

Anti-union, right-to-work advocates lauded the ruling, saying Illinois home-care providers who help the disabled do daily chores are now freed from union control. The case involved 26,000 in-home care workers in Illinois, about half of them in the Chicago area, who belong to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and who are paid with Medicaid funds administered by the state.

The ruling has no effect on other, so-called full-fledged public employees such as teachers, firefighters and government workers. The personal assistants’ status differs because Illinois state law specifies that they are public employees for one purpose only: collective bargaining, the court ruling said.

The case started in 2009 when Pamela Harris, of Western Springs, opposed joining the union and paying “fair share” fees to cover collective bargaining and other costs. Harris cares for her son, Josh, who has a rare genetic disorder and requires constant care. She and her co-plaintiffs — seven other women who work as home-health providers — argued that the required payment violated their First Amendment rights.

Although union supporters fear workers will flee in droves so they can avoid paying the dues, SEIU supporters said Monday that the union’s hard-fought victories of raising workers’ wages and providing them with health-insurance will outweigh the dues issue.

Mary Kay Henry, SEIU president, said at a news conference Monday the union is determined to find “a new model” that would ensure as strong a voice for the union as it has now and a stable, well-trained workforce for a rapidly growing elderly population in Illinois.

Finding a new model will involve discussions with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Gov. Pat Quinn, and could make home care a major issue in the November election as the population ages and people demand independent living at home rather than being institutionalized, she said.

Henry credited the SEIU with more than doubling home-care workers’ wages, to $13 an hour by year’s end from minimum wage 12 years ago.

Local residents who receive and provide in-home care said Monday that they were disappointed with the court’s ruling, but determined to get the word out about SEIU benefits. They spoke to the news media at an event set up by Access Living, a local advocacy group dedicated to helping the disabled lead independent lives, at the agency’s Chicago offices at 115 W. Chicago Ave.

Susan Aarup, a 45-year-old Southwest Side resident and accessibility consultant, said Monday that the union’s efforts to increase in-home care workers’ pay and benefits have enabled her to have long-term caregivers.

She said she has had her current in-home caregiver for eight years, and the one before that, for 13 years before that caregiver became ill.

“When the in-home assistants made $3.35 an hour — before they gained union representation — you couldn’t keep them,” said Aarup, who has cerebral palsy and who serves as co-chairman of the Chicago chapter of ADAPT and as treasurer of Chicago-based Disabled Americans Want Work Now. “They would only stay for a couple weeks at a time.”

“Who can live on $3.35 an hour?” she said at a media availability at the offices of disability-rights advocacy group ACCESS Living at 115 W. Chicago.

Aarup said she and others who support the SEIU and its representation of in-home care workers will “stay strong” after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and make sure that state legislators understand the importance of in-home care assistants’ union rights.

“At-home care saves lives,” Aarup said. “This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky thing. It’s people’s lives. … We are concerned but we’ll move forward.”

Flora Johnson, 80, of the Washington Heights neighborhood, said she started caring for her son, 47-year-old Kenneth, who has cerebral palsy, when her pay was slightly more than $5 an hour in 1997, with no paid training or health-care coverage. She now makes $11.85 an hour and will receive a pay raise to $13 an hour by year’s end.

“We needed a union,” she said. “We needed someone to stand up for us.”

Johnson said the benefits have helped her and other caregivers provide improved service, and that her son has flourished. Kenneth Johnson has traveled to Australia, Portugal, Spain and other countries as a top bocce ball player in the para-Olmpics, she noted.

Democratic politicians weighed in with their disapproval of the ruling, including Quinn, Madigan and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, along with teachers’ unions.

Durbin complained that people are working and enjoying the benefits of unionized workplaces without wanting to pay their union dues.

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