Unionbase and the Base for Unions

New Orleans   Union work has its ups and downs every week.

At week’s end I got an excited call from two of our organizers in New Orleans. They had just finished a meeting with nursing home workers in the city after following up on a call. Rather than a visit with one lone soldier, they had met fourteen workers that were redhot. We had been celebrating new contracts in a four of nursing home contracts in Shreveport where base wages would now be over $10, none of these workers were making more than $8 even as certified nursing assistants. This big home had once been owned by a huge national chain, but in one sale and transfer after another had clearly been on a slide on the other side of the moon. The organizers were ecstatic with fingers crossed, since we haven’t had a successful nursing home drive in the city for years.

Organizing is hard work, and even though there seems to be great leadership, enthusiasm, and a look-the-other-way Labor Day weekend with cards moving behind the scene, the odds now are always against success, so our fingers are crossed, and, as always, every optimistically, we read the tides like fisherman hoping against hope that this time they are finally changing and the current we need is finally coming to guide our harvest. It’s always slippery. Even while getting ready to sign the new contracts in Shreveport, we realized that the company had snuck in a couple of words that would take away pro-rata holidays for the few part-timers on the schedule. Also this week, in demanding recognition from a new janitorial company we represent that cleans city-controlled buildings in New Orleans, we have been navigating their delays as they pretended to have fired more new employees that might stall our successorship. In Houston our school workers are on pins and needles about when, and if, the 172 schools underwater will open, but somewhat comforted when the district announced it would pay workers in full while schools were now battened down after Harvey.

Ever vigilant, always optimistic, and often disappointed is the lot of union organizers and too often their members these days. In that spirit I read a piece from Fast Company that was forwarded to me about a young man in DC named Larry Williams who leads a small independent union of workers at the Sierra Club who has been working in his spare time to build some kind of social media site called Unionbase, that would connect union members and in the hype of the magazine perhaps revitalize the labor movement. On the Unionbase website debuting appropriately on Labor Day, the site claims to be home to 30000 local and national unions, but that may be aspirational. Knocking on the door of the same early problem that Facebook, the site requires unions to “register” and before union members can connect to each other, the local union has to verify their membership. On one level that is very smart. Keeps out interlopers and company lawyers and goons, but it also pushes the decision to union leaders who are not necessarily the most tech savvy demographic in the current universe where too many have secretaries still printing out their emails. Furthermore, many cautious and conservative union leaders will see this as a nuisance for them to check and verify, and more importantly a potential risk in having members able to communicate unfiltered and directly with each other rather than through union meetings and sponsored events. Union leadership is based on elections from a political base among workers, not building workers as a political and economic base, and I would bet that very few will quickly embrace Unionbase for that reason alone.

Which is too bad. The work is crushingly hard and almost any experiments this side of crazy are worth a try just on the slim chance that they could be the match that once again lights the prairie fire.


Poverty Wages and Working Conditions for Care Givers are a Crisis

New Orleans   Think about these projections and facts.

Caregivers including home health aides, personal care attendants and certified nursing assistants according to government projections are going to continue to be among the fastest-growing occupations. The Labor Department estimates that a million jobs in this classification will be added in the decade that started in 2014 and will end in 2024.

OK, there is a certain amount of guessing there, but the message is solid. As people get older, weaker, and more impaired, they are going to need more help, and the helpers are the caregivers in these categories. Anyone who has spent time in a hospital or cared for a loved one or wrestled with the issues of older relatives and their needs, knows that their lives – and often our own – depend on them completely. The primary sitters for my almost 94 year old mother are like family. One is a constant at Thanksgiving. Another was a union steward for Local 100 for decades. They make my mother’s life possible, and, frankly, mine as well, because without their constancy and competence, how would I work and travel on my schedule? I couldn’t.

But, the facts are also that a quarter of all such caregivers live in poverty. It’s also a fact that forty percent leave these occupations entirely within a year. Our union represents nursing home workers in Louisiana along with other care workers in homes and facilities for the residents who are differently-abled mentally. As part of our contracts and labor law, we get regular employee lists. The turnover is amazing.

We recently settled contracts for four nursing homes in Shreveport. We organized and brought the homes under contract in the mid-1980s, when they were owned by a family in the area. When we first won the elections the workers were all paid minimum wage with no holidays, no vacations, no nothing. Our workers are quietly celebrating their new contract now. In right-to-work Louisiana almost 50 have joined the union in the several weeks since we reached agreement. Some workers will get raises of between $1000 and $2000 per year for full-time work. Why? We were able – with the companies agreement – to get the base rate for certified nursing assistants up to $10 per hour and increase the level of annual and biannual raises. The Shreveport-based homes had been bought by a Dallas-based company that had realized in this economy they couldn’t continue to hire people and keep the staffing ratios without agreeing to raise wages.

Will there still be turnover? Oh, yes! Will some of our members still live in poverty? Oh, yes! Does this fit in with mega-political issues at the state and federal level? Oh, mercy, yes! Insurance is offered to all of workers, but none can afford it at these wages. The state is in permanent financial crisis affecting the reimbursement rate for caregivers and in fact the power of the nursing home industry and lobbyists has retarded the growth of home health care aides. Federally, Republicans are still trying to figure out how to cutback on support for Medicaid and Medicare, which is the bulk of the reimbursement.

Eduardo Porter argues in the New York Times that these critical caregiving jobs have to offer a path to the middle class. He’s right on the money, but who is willing to pay the bills, even when lives depend on it?