Caregiver Unions: Much Needed But Most Vulnerable Now

Often overlooked amid the current attacks on long-established public sector unions around the country is the threat to recently organized workers, who are the lowest paid and most badly treated. When “regular” state workers are under attack, it’s not easy to improve the conditions of a contingent workforce of direct care providers at the bottom tier of public employment, such as home health care aides and child care workers.

Organizing of publicly-funded care providers has led to expanded collective bargaining coverage for more than 600,000 workers in about a dozen states. They have become the single largest source of new members for the fast-growing Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Among those trying to emulate SEIU’s success among home-based workers has been AFSCME in many states, the American Federation of Teachers (in New York and Vermont), the United Auto Workers (in Michigan), and my own union alma mater, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in New Jersey.

In New Jersey, where CWA is the largest public employee union, our organizers tried to link community and labor concerns about child-care when they knocked on doors and made phone calls six years ago (with the help of ACORN) to obtain thousands of union authorization cards from home day care providers – and they won recognition. These 6,000 workers, averaged about $17,000 a year, with few benefits, often working only part-time. They are primarily women, people of color, foreign-born and trapped in the post-Clinton world of workfare. Most are paid through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program.

In 2006, Democratic Governor Jon Corzine signed an executive order recognizing both CWA and AFSCME as the “Child Care Workers Union”  (CCWU). In a related organizing campaign, just involving CWA, Corzine also granted bargaining rights for a newly-created statewide unit of more than 1,000 workers paid by the State Division of Developmental Disabilities to provide respite-care and other home-based services to the disabled and their families.) As in other states, among the quid pro quos for recognition was the exclusion of day care and respite care providers from normal state employee health care and pension plan coverage.

The first CCWU agreement with the state did increase annual per child payments to providers; a worker caring for five children would be earning $7,200 more annually by the end of its four-year term. Compared to the thick benefit-studded agreement covering regular N.J, state workers, it was a bare-bones contract that did not improve health coverage. The respective workplace worlds of new and old members remain as different as the union contracts that cover them.

A fiercely anti-union Republican, Chris Christie, defeated Corzine in November, 2009. But CWA and AFSCME were able to get their child-care unit recognition deal reaffirmed by New Jersey legislators during a “lame duck” session.   However, since Christie took over, he has been demonizing teachers and seeking concessions from all state workers, in every job category, making further progress for child care workers difficult indeed.

Many other states are also limiting home-based care for the aged and disabled, due to Medicaid spending restraints:

~ In New York, the 1199SEIU health care trust announced a reduction in its total enrollment of home care workers by half.

~ In Michigan, a new unit of child care providers was created by executive order but not nailed down through follow-up action by the legislature. In such circumstances, employer recognition and union dues collection are particularly vulnerable.

~ The threatened roll-back of state worker bargaining rights in Wisconsin and Ohio would, of course, most seriously affect those only recently arrived at the bargaining table. Adding to the general insecurity, the National Right to Work Committee has filed lawsuits in several states, seeking to rescind recently-won collective bargaining rights.

As Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein, the authors of a forthcoming book called Caring For America, have noted, the Achilles Heel of “political organizing” has been exposed by these right-wing legal challenges, the recession, state budget crises, and then, last Fall, the election of conservative governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and other states. According to Boris and Klein:

Deals made at the top are vulnerable. The sector and the work are insecure and unstable, with constant turnover. Workers themselves have to be able to build the union. There has to be a social depth and culture of the union that enables it to live on when workers move in and out, or the political deals fall apart, and that sustains political activism at the state house where the budget and wages take shape.

The dramatic display of labor-based “political activism at the state house” in Madison this month is not just a fight for what unions invariably (and misleadingly) call the “middle class.” It’s also a defense of the working poor who care for other poor people—and many of us in other classes—while receiving little recognition and financial compensation for the essential services they provide.

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Steve Early is labor journalist and lawyer who assisted home-based worker organizing in New Jersey when he was administrative assistant to the vice-president of the Communications Workers of America District 1. He is the author most recently of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, which describes home-based worker organizing in New Jersey, California, Illinois, New York, and other states. For more information on the book and how to order it, see  http://www.civilwarsinlabor.org. Early can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.

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