I’m Not Complaining, but What a Week

New Orleans  Returning exhausted from stops in Shreveport, Louisiana, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Greenville, Mississippi, somehow I can’t get these weird signposts of the times and odd ends out of my mind. Normally, I would let them go, but somehow this Chief Organizer Report is going to be a report on the chief organizer, so bear with me.

Bargaining four nursing home contracts in Shreveport, the company already wants to include language making the Affordable Care obligations moot, even while the whole operation continues forward in the stalemate of Congress and presidential politics.

A studio chair and some folding chairs for WAMF, the new low power FM radio station that we just got on the air in New Orleans, was donated to us in Bossier City across the river (thanks Butlers and Clarks!). In a pleasant middle income suburb between a mall and an expressway, I parked my big truck, doors wide open in the driveway of the unoccupied house waiting for Local 100 organizer, Toney Orr from Arkansas, to help me load it all in. Neighbors drove by and up and down the driveway next door. No questions asked, even as we hauled the furniture out. Is that weird?

In Little Rock, despite six months of work on the Home Savers Campaign and running PSAs on KABF referring calls to Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, that yielded little, we finally broke through and within 48 hours found a trove of both Vision Property Management and Harbour Portfolio rent-to-own and contract to purchase houses throughout central Arkansas. We had boomed out to visit victims in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania and here they were right under our noses! The lesson, even when the spirit is willing, we have to shore up the capacity to account for how often the flesh of our operations need more underwire. Capacity matters, even a little can make a huge difference, and that’s worth remembering. Oh, and, a Home Savers organizer, Dine’ Butler, was the big finish of the well-regarded Reveal podcast, home visiting a victim in Detroit.

Capacity, capacity, capacity, it comes up again and again, and amazingly we stumble around trying to find it even when it is kicking us in the knees and pushing us to the ground. One kingdom after another lost for lack of a horse. Our biggest underwriting partner at KABF was being stymied on promoting its great work, because we had never pressed hard enough for the spots for them to realize if they gave us copy we could produce them quickly or allow hosts to do “reads.” Ouch!

Visiting radio station WDSV in Greenville for the 7th month, it was the same story with a different verse. Frustrated and stalled in achieving their mission after 5 years on-the-air as the voice of the people in the Delta, they were being held hostage by technology too large and complicated for them to easily access to master the ladder to the heaven they sought. The magic and miracle is not that we can fix that, but that it takes so long for us to marry problems to solutions, so that we can move forward in our work.

Sometimes I’m racing so fast that I miss how easily it is to stumble on the simplest steps. I wish it were just me!

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When Will We Recognize Direct Care Worker Crises

New Orleans  Most people – and politicians – don’t recognize the real contributions of direct care health workers until their lives or the lives of loved ones depend on them.  And, when I say, depends on them, I mean for everything from mobility, to feeding, to bathing, to the most basic and private needs that constitute basic human dignity.  These workers in home health, community homes for the mentally challenged, nursing homes, and even in private homes as sitters, are critical and essential workers.  There are millions of such workers now and the numbers are expected to double over the next 20 years, yet despite their important contributions many are working in semi-feudal conditions.

            Not surprisingly there is high turnover in these jobs.  Pay is low.  National averages indicate pay is around $11.75 per hour, but in nursing home and community home chains, wages hardly over the federal minimum are more common and cash strapped states continue to whack away at reimbursement rates forcing virtual freezes and impenetrable ceilings.  On-the-job injury rates caused by excessive lifting by predominantly female workers are frighteningly high and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics are as high as the rates achieved at slaughtering houses where knives are the basic work tools and just below the rates of injuries for professional sports teams.  Add to all of this the fact that some of the tasks involved in this work are unpleasant to put it mildly, and it is amazing that so many are so devoted to this labor and the compensation is so embarrassing and degrading.

            These are problems everyone recognizes, yet no one moves to solve.  Unionization rates remain abysmally low, especially in nursing homes where turnover is rampant and reimbursement rates are typically ridiculous.  Thousands of workplaces averaging 50 workers or less make organizing under existing legal restraints exorbitantly expensive and inefficient and in right-to-work states economically prohibitive for many unions under current recruitment models, despite a plethora of issues and worker complaints.  Experts agree that high turnover is a problem leading to worse care for patients and higher costs given an estimated new hire recruitment and training cost of about $4000 per worker, yet nothing seems to change except the workload.

            A new unit organized by Local 100 recently at a work facility for the mentally challenged in Louisiana contacted the union when daily ratio hit one staff member to 20 clients throughout the day, simply overwhelming the workers.   In a rarity the company directly recognized our union knowing that 100% of the workers were signed up, but probably hoping that workers in the union were more likely not to call the state to come investigate the working and staffing conditions.

            Average costs to care for the elderly are now being projected to hit $50,000 per year with the numbers expected to soar over the next 10 to 20 years as the baby boom generation wears out.   Full time in-home care even when informal and off the books can reach $70 to $80,000 annually now, which financially pushes loved ones into the cheaper, most affordable arrangements regardless of how untenable situations might be.

            Workers and families are at their breaking points with no sign of relief in sight.  There is a political crisis and a worker revolution ticking quietly, but quickly, towards either revolution or chaos without anyone but the workers themselves lifting much of a hand towards the problems.

Direct Care Workers Audio Blog.

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Mr. President Don’t let Healthcare Coverage be Taken from Healthcare Workers

Obama signes Healthcare Reform Act

Obama signes Healthcare Reform Act

Tegucigalpa Before dawn in Honduras with the birds still loud and the sun still just a rumor, I was writing a petition for Local 100 members (www.unitedlaborunions.org) to be able to get out through our leaders and stewards throughout Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas to demand that President Obama, DHS, Congressional Representatives, Senators and just about anyone who might listen would say no to the industry’s efforts to try and get a waiver from finally providing their workers healthcare under the coming law.  Reading the morning papers on-line, I was amazed at the gall and the bitter irony of healthcare industries trying to deny healthcare workers basic health insurance.

We represent a number of nursing home workers employed by different companies throughout Louisiana and Texas and community home workers providing similar health care support for the developmentally disabled in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas.  These are hard working, caring workers doing the jobs that families cannot do and that companies often pay little for them to do, despite the essential nature of the service.  It has long been an embarrassing blemish in our state and federal reimbursement systems that so much of these industries have been privatized under companies for whom profits are foremost and care is somewhere down the line, and the workforce often amounting to more than half of the care cost is always last on the list.

Reading the article in the Times of the nursing home association and the former governor of Kansas (is it a coincidence that the current head of DHS in DC is also a former governor of Kansas?) and its attempt to get a waiver from the President allowing them to not have to provide the now legally required healthcare for the millions of industry workers who currently provide healthcare but do not enjoy any healthcare themselves, was to put it mildly disgusting and enraging.  The gall!

Workers even in unionized homes such as hours are above minimum wage but still in sight of minimum wages with starting levels only a dollar or two above $7.25 and sometimes as little as $0.50 cents above.  When we first organized facilities in Louisiana almost 30 years ago they were all minimum wage, no vacations, no sick days, no holidays, no nothing, and certainly no health are or pensions.  Now with a union they are above minimum wage by a good number of steps, have regular raises and protections, do have vacations, do have sick days, do have holidays, but still don’t have any health insurance (or where they do have something it is so far out of their reach financially that it is almost an insult to claim it in the contract), and of course pensions courtesy of the Social Security Act.

It is unimaginable that the President or anyone recognizing the plight and paradox of healthcare workers without healthcare would even countenance for a minute giving a waiver, but in these days and times, nothing is certain.  As I write this, we are still writing the petition so we can post and circulate, but don’t hesitate to give a call and/or send a message to the White House and your elected representatives that doggone, don’t approve a waiver:  healthcare workers have to have healthcare, too!

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Union Leaders Thinking “Outside the Box”

Workshops on subcontracting and nursing homes and community homes

Workshops on subcontracting and nursing homes and community homes

Texas Union Members speakingUnion Organizer Roger from Houston listeningShreveport Local 100’s stewards and leaders organized themselves into three different workshops. One focused on schools and head start units, another looked at health care with nursing and community homes, and the last bit hard into contractors and subcontractors for sanitation and janitorial workers. The results were inspiring and exciting. In the report backs one leader perhaps summed it up best by saying, “we have to think ‘outside the box.’”

The reason is simple enough to follow as well. Companies are “way out the box.” One problem stewards were unpacking focused on a unit where Local 100 had won an election in April 2009 for cleaners with a local, Dallas-based company at D/FW Airport Concourse D. After endless delays in bargaining including company delays around election objections, after six months of bargaining in which the company delayed and postponed one meeting after another, they walked away from the table in spring of 2010 with dueling NLRB charges. Another company won the bid in May 2010 and recognized the unions but within hours of coming to agreement with the union in August, they walked away from the contract. A third company is now bargaining with the union, and prospects are fair for a settlement, but the union has now had to also demand recognition with several additional companies that are subcontracting part of the work. The workers, those that have survived, are shell shocked. The giant public airport authority running one of the USA’s largest airports is involved in such a race to the bottom, that it is squeezing contractors and sweating workers without a moment’s hesitation. The Local 100 stewards understood that these problems require not just leadership, but virtually heroism!

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