When the Supreme Court ruled last month that public-sector unions were not allowed to extract dues from payments to home care and child care providers, it was more than a victory for Illinois provider Pamela Harris. It was also a victory for small-business owners like myself, who have experienced union intimidation and payment schemes firsthand.
The ruling means that for the first time in recent history, my fellow home care and child care providers will have a real choice whether or not to financially support a union they don’t want or need. Many of my friends and acquaintances, however, are still not aware of this choice. That’s why I’m participating in National Employee Freedom Week, a grass-roots campaign consisting of 68 organizations across 40 states informing union employees about their rights to opt out of union membership.
My story starts in the spring of 2006, when a man I’d never met walked into my Minnesota home and asked for my signature on what he claimed was a petition asking the state for health insurance for child care providers like myself. As it happened, I already had health insurance, and I didn’t feel it was the state’s responsibility to provide it to me.
I repeatedly declined to sign his petition, but this wasn’t enough. The gentleman grew angry, and his demands became louder and more insistent. His behavior was alarming; to get him to leave, I promised to sign his card later if he would return after I had time to look it over.
When I finally had the opportunity to read this “petition,” I was shocked to learn it was in reality a union-authorization card that had nothing to do with health insurance. Instead, it would have enrolled me as a dues-paying member of the Service Employees International Union. With that one signature, I would have inadvertently given this union the right to be my exclusive representative in my dealings with the state on matters related to my child care business.
I worked hard and my family sacrificed a lot to build my small business from the ground up. There’s a lot of pride that comes with ownership, and that’s not something I wanted to see jeopardized by paying an organization I didn’t know or trust to represent my business.
I figured that the dishonesty of my unwelcome house guest was illegal — but I was wrong. I contacted both our state and national labor boards, and neither would even take my complaint; because I wasn’t an employee, I wasn’t covered under labor law. Everywhere I turned for help, I was met with a dead end. It became evident that if I wanted to maintain my independence from the union, I would have to fight for it myself.
I was fortunate that a private legal defense foundation agreed to take my case — but not everyone is so lucky. Many employees don’t know their rights at all.
That’s why National Employee Freedom Week is so important. In some states (called “right-to-work” states), employees already have the ability to leave their union entirely without any penalty. In other states, thanks to an earlier Supreme Court case, employees can opt out of paying the portion of their dues not directly related to the union’s representational activities.
These freedoms will be promoted to union members across 40 states next week, but we can’t just discuss them during one week in August. Labor unions aren’t in the business of establishing “exit” signs to help guide employees out.
I understand that there are people who appreciate being part of union, and I respect their choice. But so, too, should unions respect that many of us aren’t interested in joining their ranks, and they should neither bully us into joining, nor make it unduly difficult to leave.
I invite union members everywhere to ask themselves if they are getting value from their union membership. If so, great. If not, there are ways out. The unions won’t show you where the “exit” is, but we will.
Jennifer Parrish is a home child care provider in Minnesota and lead plaintiff in Parrish v. Dayton.