Part of the Washington Examiner's weeklong commentary series on labor unions. To see the entire series, click here.
Susie Watts spends most of her time taking care of her daughter, Libby, who has severe cerebral palsy.
To lessen the financial burden, she accepts funding under the Illinois Home Services Program.
It’s a good deal all around. The program is much cheaper for the state than institutionalizing people. Watts’ daughter gets much better care without bankrupting her mother.
But there's a catch. By signing up, Watts automatically agreed to be represented by the Service Employees International Union, which takes fees out of every check she gets -- $750 a year.
“The state never told me about this. I was stunned when I got the paycheck and saw that money was being taken out,” Watts said.
Watts works in her own home and is not supervised by a state official. But since 2003, participants in the program have been considered state employees for the purpose of collective bargaining.
From the time Watts joined the program in 2005, $750 a year has been paid by the state to the SEIU as her dues.
The money -- which would otherwise go to help care for her daughter -- supposedly pays for the labor representation services the union gives her.
She has refused to join the union, and is now one of eight plaintiffs in a Supreme Court case, Harris v. Quinn, that challenges the state's decisions to make the home caregivers eligible for unionization in the first place. The justices heard oral arguments in January and are expected to rule by summer.
“I just want the right to take care of my daughter in my own home without the interference of the union,” Watts said. “We’re just asking for a choice.”
The case is being closely watched by labor law experts since it could overturn a precedent set in 1977’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that allowed the kind of “exclusive representation” arrangements SEIU now has with Illinois. Such arrangements are common between unions and local government.
The Illinois case is notable for how it stretches the definition of “state employee” to the breaking point. In fact, for most of the program’s existence, the state explicitly said home caregivers were not employees.
How and why that changed is a case study in how public sector unionism has corrupted the political process.
When the question was first brought to the State Labor Relations Board in 1985, the board ruled that because the Medicaid money went directly to the care recipient, that person was the primary employer, not the state.
Without a common employer, there could be no union for caregivers.
The ruling made sense even though the caregiver and recipient are also often family members. It’s those two who work out the terms of the agreement.
The care recipient can even fire the caregiver at any time. While Illinois does set standards, the caregivers don’t report to state officials. Nor do they have any common workplace.
That changed when Rod Blagojevich was elected governor in 2002. The ambitious Democrat was particularly close to SEIU, which donated $800,000 to his campaign.
Tom Balanoff, head of the union’s Illinois council and a personal friend of Blagojevich, said at a February 2003 victory rally: “We couldn’t have a better ally supporting us. We elected a person who is going to be with us through thick and thin.”
The new governor moved quickly to repay the union's support, issuing a March 4, 2003, executive order making home health care workers state employees eligible for collective bargaining.
Tellingly, the order specified that they were not state employees for the purpose of receiving pensions or other state-mandated benefits.
One week later, SEIU Local 880 presented a claim to Illinois that it had a majority of the workers' support. Five days after that, on March 17, the state certified the union -- SEIU Healthcare Illinois-Indiana -- as the workers' “exclusive representative.” It remains so to this day.
The union did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The governor's favoritism toward SEIU was so pronounced -- Balanoff later received an appointment to the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board -- that other unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, complained.
Illinois was in such a hurry to give SEIU a contract that it apparently did nothing to verify that the union had fairly won the election.
Last year, the Illinois Policy Institute filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the state seeking “any and all documents related to authenticating the submitted documentation used [in 2003] to show majority interest of personal assistants to be represented by SEIU.”
In December, the state's Department of Central Management Services responded that “due to the age of the records and files at issue” it was “unable to determine” what answered their query.
That certainly sounded like officials were saying they could not find any documents authenticating the 2003 vote.
After follow-up inquiries by the Washington Examiner, CMS spokeswoman Alka Nayyar said that interpretation was “not accurate.”
However, the only document Nayyar could point to that showed Illinois had authenticated the vote was the March 11, 2003, letter from SEIU itself claiming it had majority support.
Furthermore, the evidence the union enclosed in the letter — supposedly cards signed by the individual workers — was “exempt from disclosure under Illinois law” and therefore not available.
“[W]e cannot identify what records may have been used to ‘authenticate’ those [SEIU] enclosures,” Nayyar said. In addition, the people who would know are “no longer with the agency.”
She added: “The enclosures themselves, however, were clearly used to tally the number of personal assistants who choose to be represented by SEIU.”
In other words, the state may have just accepted the union’s word that it won. This was a “Card Check” election, not a secret ballot vote, and a close one: SEIU had only claimed to have gotten the support of 52 percent of the 20,000 home health care workers.
Card Check votes are less reliable because it is not always clear that workers knew they were signing a vote to unionize, or that they were really the person who signed it.
The program is big money for SEIU, which receives $10 million a year in dues from the approximately 20,000 home health care workers.
In a telling sign regarding the 2003 vote, SEIU’s official letter claiming it had majority support also indicated that Illinois was already collecting dues for the union from more than 9,000 home health care workers.
Even assuming that those were voluntary deductions from avowed SEIU members, it shows that the state was going to great lengths to accommodate the union.
“It was deducting union dues on behalf of a union that it hadn’t certified and hadn’t reached a contract with,” said Paul Kersey, labor expert with the Illinois Policy Institute.
In 2005, Blagojevich issued another executive order making 49,000 daycare workers subsidized under a similar state program eligible for unionization.
SEIU was subsequently awarded exclusive representation rights for these workers. The union won 80 percent in a mail-in vote, though only 16,700 of the eligible workers actually participated.
Blagojevich was reportedly on the verge of issuing a third such executive order when he was arrested in December 2008 and charged with corruption.
He was subsequently removed from office and is now serving a 14-year sentence at a federal prison in Denver.
He did not respond to an Examiner request for comment made through the Federal Bureau of Prisons and his lawyer.
SEIU was named in the criminal indictment against Blagojevich, though no one at the union was charged. A top official -- identified as Balanoff by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal -- acted as Blagojevich's go-between when he proposed a deal to the White House. (Administration officials apparently had no interest.)
With Blagojevich in prison, SEIU then threw its support behind Pat Quinn, who succeeded him in office. Quinn has received nearly $5 million from the union over his political career.
The new governor picked up where the previous one left off: He issued an executive order in 2009 making Medicaid-funded home health care workers for the mentally disabled eligible for unionization.
As with the earlier executive orders, Quinn’s directive said the 4,500 caregivers were state employees only for the purposes of unionization.
Assuming the same membership rates as the other home health care workers, getting that contract would net the union about $2 million annually.
Things did not go well for organized labor this time around. Angry over losing out twice previously, AFSCME challenged SEIU for representation of the workers. A mail-in vote was set in October 2009 to settle the dispute.
Both unions lost when the workers soundly rejected unionization by 2-1 margin. The two unions combined did not even get 40 percent of the vote. Not having Blagojevich in the governor’s office seemed to make a big difference.