Today the Weekend Reader brings you Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress, by labor journalist and union representative Steve Early. Early gives a voice to union workers who are losing funding and collective bargaining rights in the name of big business and elected leaders’ political gains. The decline of unions in the U.S. is a serious issue that has fallen off the radar of mainstream media. A labor revival is vital, but what’s needed first is a fundamental understanding of how the rights of millions are being denied — and that’s precisely what Early offers in Save Our Unions. In this excerpt, the author discusses the home health care industry and the attack on their union rights by politicians across the country.
You can purchase the full book here.
One of the cruel ironies of America’s health care system is how poorly it covers caregivers themselves—particularly those who toil, without professional status, in hospitals, nursing homes, and home health care. More than 2.5 million people now work in this last field. Home health aides (or personal care attendants, as they are sometimes called) are mainly low-income, often non-white, female, and, in some states, foreign-born. Their contingent labor is largely invisible as well as undervalued. Even with union representation, the work pays little more than the minimum wage and lacks significant benefits. Already the second-fastest-growing occupation in the country, home health and personal care jobs are expected to double by 2018.
The good news is that homecare has been an area of explosive union growth in the last two decades, as Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein report in their new book, Caring for America.’ The bad news is that recent union gains are being rolled back in big states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan. There, Republican governors have undone the union organizing deals made by their Democratic predecessors that created new bargaining units composed of home health aides and, in some states, child care providers also. As a result, nearly 50,000 newly organized workers have lost their precarious toehold at the bottom rung of public employment.
Prior to the wave of 2010 GOP gubernatorial victories in the Midwest, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and at least four other unions had managed to win bargaining rights for more than half a million home-based workers. Previously—and to this day in most places—home health care aides and home day care providers were unfairly classified as “independent contractors.” They had no organizational voice and, in some cases, the “nontraditional workplace” where they cared for children, the aged, or disabled was their own home.
In return for union recognition from union-friendly Democratic governors and legislators, 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 medical or retirement plans. In labor’s latest successful campaign, 11,000 Medicaid-paid personal care attendants and state-funded day care workers gained bargaining rights in Connecticut, thanks to new Democratic Governor Dan Malloy. But they, like their counterparts elsewhere, will be negotiating health insurance quite different from the coverage enjoyed by state employees unionized for decades.
In key midwestern states, the right to bargain itself is being lost, along with some fragile first and second contract gains. In Michigan, 40,000 child care workers represented by the UAW and AFSCME won bargaining rights in December 2006 through an executive order. In early 2011, Republican Governor Rick Snyder cut pay by 25 percent and terminated union dues collection for more than 16,000 of these workers. In Ohio, GOP Governor John Kasich similarly rescinded contract coverage for 14,000 recently unionized child care and home care workers. Another group of 4,000 home health care aides in Wisconsin failed to win legislative approval of the $9 per hour minimum wage they negotiated in 2010. Then, as part of Governor Scott Walker’s broader attack on public employee bargaining in the state, he abolished the Quality Home Care Authority created in 2009 to facilitate personal care attendant unionization.
Multiple lawsuits have been filed by right-wing groups opposed to any expansion of public sector bargaining, particularly by executive order. Three legal challenges were mounted in Connecticut to thwart Malloy’s initiative. In Missouri, SEIU and AFSCME engineered a statewide referendum authorizing home care unionism in 2008. But, even after the two unions later won representation votes among 13,000 workers, conservative foes stalled first contract negotiations for nearly four years, until the state supreme court finally upheld SEIU-AFSCME certification. In California, Jerry Brown—a governor elected, like Malloy, with strong labor support—vetoed a bill passed by state legislators that would have allowed thousands of child care providers to unionize more easily, through a card check process. Citing fiscal constraints, Brown balked at extending bargaining rights to the same kind of workforce that is union-represented in New York, New Jersey, Oregon, and now Connecticut.
Copyright 2014 The National Memo