06/24/2014 06:32 pm ET Updated Aug 23, 2014

Harris v. Quinn: A Personal View

Following the progress of the latest anti-labor lawsuit, Harris v. Quinn, I'm reminded of the story of a homecare worker named Evelyn. She had recently arrived in the city, but by working hard, she had secured several customers, doing housekeeping, helping with bathing and meal preparing, and picking up seamstress work on the side. It was a demanding job and the pay was barely minimum wage; some days, because all of the extra work she did, it was less than minimum wage. Evelyn earned no benefits and had no health insurance. If she got sick, she just worked her way through whatever sickness or cold she had. She had four children, ranging in age from toddler to middle-schooler. She barely had time to feed them in the morning and put them to bed at night. Her husband was a laborer, but he had a drinking problem and frequently was not around.

One day, Evelyn's oldest daughter fell sick. Since she had no insurance and couldn't afford a doctor, Evelyn tried home remedies first -- but her daughter's fever kept getting higher and higher until finally she ended up in the charity ward of the local hospital. Soon her mother ended up in the hospital, too, as well as her younger son. They had all come down with scarlet fever and were deathly ill.

By some miracle, Evelyn and her son pulled through it and the fever broke. But it was too late for her daughter. The young son and adoring little brother never got over the loss -- crying out for his big sister for months afterwards, saying her name as he drifted off to sleep.

Evelyn was my grandmother and her son was my father; Grandma taught me a lot of values that I cherish today. So, when I started organizing homecare workers 30 years ago in Chicago, it wasn't just because I felt for the plight of homecare workers denied decent wages and benefits: it was also because homecare work was in my family. I'd grown up on stories about how my grandmother and her sisters had worked so hard for other families but barely had time for their own.

I started my organizing career at a meeting in church basement with seven brave workers who voted to organize a union. It took almost two years, but we finally got our first contract in June of 1985. Now, our union is more than 92,000 members strong, the fifth-largest union in SEIU.

Wages that were once barely minimum wage -- $3.35 per hour, and in some cases, a $1 per hour -- in 1983, are now $11.85 per hour and will rise to $13 per hour by the end of this year.
And for workers at private companies, we have won paid holidays, paid vacations, travel pay, mileage, a grievance procedure, and so much more. Best of all, we now have a health fund that covers over 22,000 homecare, childcare, nursing home, and other health care workers. Worker turnover rates - which at one point were over 90 percent annually, or worse -- have now, according to all accounts, dropped significantly, a major improvement in the quality of care for seniors and people with disabilities.

But a lawsuit brought by the right-wing National Right to Work Foundation, Harris v. Quinn, has been working its way through the courts and is due to be decided in the coming weeks by the Supreme Court of the United States. By attacking workers' right to unionize, Harris v. Quinn threatens to reverse the progress homecare and childcare workers and consumers have realized in recent years. If the National Right to Work Foundation wins this suit, we could go back to the bad old days: wages and benefits could drop or be eliminated, hours of care could be drastically cut, turnover could soar, and the quality of life for the homecare workers, the seniors and people with disabilities they serve, and ultimately all of us, could suffer.

And tragedies like the one that befell my grandmother, Evelyn, would certainly happen even more. The Court must not allow that to happen.

Keith Kelleher, is a founder and President of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas, and an International Vice-President of SEIU.