GOP Targets Fragile Gains of Home-Based Caregivers

Steve Early

Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er is not alone in bash­ing pub­lic work­ers these days. In the view of Indi­ana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a poten­tial 2012 GOP pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing has trans­formed civ­il ser­vants into a new priv­i­leged class.” For many new­ly elect­ed Repub­li­can gov­er­nors and leg­is­la­tors, the solu­tion to the bud­get prob­lems of state and local gov­ern­ment is to strip pub­lic employ­ees of nego­ti­at­ing rights while cut­ting their exist­ing pay and ben­e­fits.

Teach­ers, social work­ers, pub­lic safe­ty offi­cers and many oth­er white-col­lar and blue-col­lar employ­ees are clear­ly the main tar­get of this mul­ti-state assault. Decades of union bar­gain­ing in a major­i­ty of states has pro­vid­ed mil­lions of pub­lic sec­tor work­ers with the kind of job-based health insur­ance and retire­ment cov­er­age that all Amer­i­cans should enjoy, but that most don’t.

Mean­while, there’s anoth­er group of pub­lic employ­ees — only recent­ly arrived at the bar­gain­ing table — who are not priv­i­leged” by any stan­dard. These are the hun­dreds of thou­sands of direct-care providers who work with chil­dren, the aged or dis­abled in their own or oth­er fam­i­lies’ homes. These care­givers are main­ly low-income, non-white, female and, in some states, for­eign born. Their con­tin­gent labor is large­ly invis­i­ble as well as under­val­ued. Even with union rep­re­sen­ta­tion, these jobs pay lit­tle more than the min­i­mum wage and lack sig­nif­i­cant benefits.

Since 1999, polit­i­cal action and orga­niz­ing by the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) and four oth­er unions has helped more than 600,000 home-based work­ers win col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights. Pre­vi­ous­ly, home health­care aides and child­care providers were clas­si­fied as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors” and had lit­tle or no orga­ni­za­tion­al voice in their non-tra­di­tion­al” workplaces.

In return for union recog­ni­tion and ini­tial con­tracts obtained from union-friend­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic law­mak­ers, SEIU, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, Coun­ty and Munic­i­pal Employ­ees (AFSCME), the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT), the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA) and the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers (UAW) all agreed that their new home-based work­er bar­gain­ing units would not be cov­ered by exist­ing state work­er pen­sion or med­ical plans.

Now the bud­get ax is falling on these work­ers. Since Jan­u­ary, near­ly 40,000 home-based work­ers have lost much-need­ed union pro­tec­tion. Many more will lose their jobs in these states and in oth­ers run by Democ­rats, due to pub­lic spend­ing cuts in home-based child­care and health ser­vices. Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia pro­fes­sor Eileen Boris char­ac­ter­izes these pro­grams as the poor car­ing for the poor.” When fund­ing is reduced and direct-care jobs are elim­i­nat­ed, low-income Amer­i­cans suf­fer as both work­ers and clients.

In Michi­gan, 40,000 child­care work­ers rep­re­sent­ed by the UAW and AFSCME won bar­gain­ing rights in Decem­ber 2006 through an exec­u­tive order. On March 1, how­ev­er, Repub­li­can Gov. Rick Sny­der cut pay by 25 per­cent and ter­mi­nat­ed union dues col­lec­tion for more than 16,000 of these work­ers. In Ohio, GOP Gov. John Kasich sim­i­lar­ly rescind­ed con­tract cov­er­age for 14,000 recent­ly union­ized child­care and home care work­ers. Anoth­er group of 4,000 home health­care aides in Wis­con­sin failed to win leg­isla­tive approval of the $9 per hour min­i­mum wage they nego­ti­at­ed last year. Now, as part of Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt­ed repeal of pub­lic-sec­tor bar­gain­ing in the state, he has abol­ished the Qual­i­ty Home Care Author­i­ty cre­at­ed in 2009 to facil­i­tate union­iza­tion of these per­son­al care atten­dants.

This trend is not lim­it­ed to Repub­li­cans. While not threat­en­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights, new Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nors are squeez­ing ben­e­fits that affect union­ized care­givers. In New York State, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s bud­get slash­es more than $2 bil­lion from edu­ca­tion and health­care spend­ing. New York City-based 1199 SEIU, which rep­re­sents 70,000 home care work­ers, is opti­mistic that its mem­bers will be pro­tect­ed. Deliv­er­ing state sav­ings with­out dis­rup­tion to Med­ic­aid ben­e­fi­cia­ries and their care­givers is an enor­mous feat,” union pres­i­dent George Gre­sham told The New York Times in late Feb­ru­ary.

As 1199 point­ed out in a state­ment last fall, how­ev­er, state Med­ic­aid fund­ing to the home health ser­vices sec­tor has been cut 9 sep­a­rate times in just the last three years.” As many as half of the union’s home care mem­bers, who often make less than $15,000 a year, have lost their cov­er­age under the 1199 health­care trust. In addi­tion, to main­tain the med­ical ben­e­fits of work­ing mem­bers who still qual­i­fy, thou­sands of depen­dent chil­dren have been dropped from the same plan because of a report­ed short­fall between what employ­ers con­tributed to the fund and the high­er pre­mi­ums now being charged by its insur­ance provider. (Most of the chil­dren affect­ed are eli­gi­ble for alter­na­tive cov­er­age through New York State’s Chil­dren Health Plus pro­gram.)

Spend­ing reduc­tions announced in March by Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Jer­ry Brown includ­ed near­ly $3 bil­lion worth of cuts in Med­ic­aid and wel­fare-to-work pro­grams. Sev­er­al hun­dred thou­sand union­ized care­givers employed in California’s coun­ty-admin­is­tered but state-fund­ed In-Home Sup­port­ive Ser­vices pro­gram will soon bear the brunt of this bud­get crunch. In 10 oth­er states where home care union­ism is a much new­er phe­nom­e­na with far less polit­i­cal clout behind it, a mas­sive reduc­tion in jobs, hours and com­pen­sa­tion will be even hard­er to fend off.

When CWA first gained a frag­ile foothold in this sec­tor six years ago, the union part­nered with both AFSCME and the now dis­band­ed ACORN. In New Jer­sey, where CWA is the largest pub­lic employ­ee union, orga­niz­ers knocked on child­care providers’ doors using lists pro­vid­ed by the state and leads obtained from the Newark, Tren­ton and Cam­den chap­ters of ACORN. CWA and AFSCME col­lect­ed enough union autho­riza­tion cards to win recog­ni­tion for a new Child Care Work­ers Union (CCWU) via an exec­u­tive order signed by Gov. Jon Corzine in August 2006. In a relat­ed CWA orga­niz­ing dri­ve, Corzine grant­ed bar­gain­ing rights to 1,000 State Divi­sion of Devel­op­men­tal Dis­abil­i­ties employ­ees who pro­vide respite care and oth­er home-based ser­vices to the dis­abled and their fam­i­lies.

Pri­or to this, the 6,000 child­care work­ers involved aver­aged about $17,000 a year, with few ben­e­fits and often only part-time work. Most of these posi­tions are fund­ed through the Tem­po­rary Assis­tance for Needy Fam­i­lies (TANF) Pro­gram, oth­er­wise known as work­fare.” Par­tic­i­pants in TANF take care of their own chil­dren or the chil­dren of oth­er recip­i­ents who are employed in low-wage jobs out­side their own homes. The ini­tial CCWU agree­ment with the state increased annu­al per-child pay­ments to providers; a work­er car­ing for five chil­dren could earn $7,200 more annu­al­ly by the end of the four-year con­tract.

The CCWU con­tract also oblig­at­ed the state to pro­vide par­ents with senior­i­ty lists so they would know who was an expe­ri­enced day care provider and who was new to the job. A griev­ance pro­ce­dure was cre­at­ed, which includ­ed arbi­tra­tion of unre­solved dis­putes about con­tract vio­la­tions. Com­pared to the ben­e­fit-stud­ded agree­ment cov­er­ing reg­u­lar state work­ers — now under attack by Corzine’s Repub­li­can suc­ces­sor, Gov. Chris Christie — the CCWU agree­ment was bare bones. It didn’t improve health­care, defer­ring the issue to a fol­low-up study and sub­se­quent nego­ti­a­tions that won’t be easy in the cur­rent bar­gain­ing cli­mate.

CWA and AFSCME did man­age to scratch out a vic­to­ry by get­ting leg­isla­tive approval for the union recog­ni­tion deals dur­ing a lame duck ses­sion in Tren­ton before Christie’s inau­gu­ra­tion in Jan­u­ary 2010.

As Eileen Boris and Jen­nifer Klein argue in their forth­com­ing book, Car­ing for Amer­i­ca, the nation­al reces­sion, state bud­get crises and right-wing ascen­dan­cy in some state cap­i­tals has exposed an Achilles heel of the orga­niz­ing mod­el estab­lished by SEIU and copied by oth­er unions.” Boris and Klein have long expressed con­cern about whether empow­er­ing care work­ers” was real­ly part of the union agen­da. While sup­port­ive of the eco­nom­ic gains made for home health­care aides in New York, Illi­nois and Cal­i­for­nia — where Democ­rats still con­trol the governor’s office — the authors warned about the weak­ness of bureau­crat­ic union­ism that rein­forces the old racial­ized gen­der dis­tinc­tions of care work and stymies the advance­ment of rank-and-file women.”

Build­ing real orga­ni­za­tion among home-based work­ers iso­lat­ed from co-work­ers and lack­ing tra­di­tion­al union struc­tures (like a shop stew­ard net­work) is even more crit­i­cal than before. As Boris and Klein note, polit­i­cal deals made at the top are now vul­ner­a­ble in a sec­tor where the work was already inse­cure and unsta­ble, with con­stant turnover.” Home-based work­er union­ism will only sur­vive, they argue, if there is a social depth and cul­ture to the union that enables it to live on when work­ers move in and out, or the polit­i­cal deals fall apart.”

The dra­mat­ic and unusu­al dis­play of grass­roots activism in Wis­con­sin this win­ter has shown the poten­tial for a dif­fer­ent kind of pub­lic sec­tor union­ism. In long estab­lished bar­gain­ing units, rank-and-file activists have bro­ken with busi­ness as usu­al, by using direct action on the job in the form of teacher sick-outs (in Madi­son-area pub­lic schools) and their occu­pa­tion of the state capi­tol build­ing. For hun­dreds of thou­sands of low-wage direct-care providers, the fight to defend mod­est con­tract gains or recent­ly acquit­ted bar­gain­ing rights is an impor­tant, if lit­tle noticed, part of this ongo­ing strug­gle in Madi­son and oth­er mid­west­ern state cap­i­tals.

This com­mu­ni­ty-labor cam­paign is not just a fight for what union offi­cials invari­ably, and mis­lead­ing­ly, call the mid­dle class.” The work­ing poor who care for oth­er poor peo­ple — and many of us in oth­er class­es — haven’t made it that far up the lad­der yet. Their pal­try pay, lack of ben­e­fit cov­er­age, lim­it­ed train­ing and pro­mo­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties all belie the impor­tance of the work they do every day, in non-insti­tu­tion­al set­tings. Orga­nized labor would do well to put their plight front and cen­ter because there are no pub­lic-sec­tor fat cats,” real or imag­ined, any­where to be found in the fields of home care and childcare.

A ver­sion of this piece orig­i­nal­ly appeared in The Indypen­dent.

Steve Ear­ly is labor jour­nal­ist and lawyer who worked as a staff mem­ber of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca in the north­east. He is the author, most recent­ly, of The Civ­il Wars in U.S. Labor, which reports on home-based work­er orga­niz­ing in New Jer­sey, Cal­i­for­nia, Illi­nois, and oth­ers states. 

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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