Steven Greenhouse in the Times reported that SEIU is claiming that “thousands” of the several hundred thousand home health care workers represented by the union are preparing to join upcoming actions and participate in civil disobedience along with fast fooders in advancing their claims. In and of itself this announcement doesn’t move the needle on the campaign, but what it does indicate is that the campaign might finally become very real if organizers and leaders are willing to broadly mobilize the half-million or more homecare workers under union contracts from Illinois to California, New York to Washington State and many places in between.
The unionization of these informal, precarious workers over the last thirty years has been the single crowning organizing achievement of our generation of labor organizers. The advances these workers have achieved have been significant, going from minimum wage – or less – to better wages and finally benefits and real protections. At the same time the gnawing problem for unionized homecare workers continues to be their relatively low wages, partially because of the complicated matching requirements of state and federal reimbursement dollars bumping up against the impacts of the Great Recession on state budgets across the country.
A major national campaign by SEIU, AFSCME, and other unions representing homecare workers willing to move contract wages across the country to $15 per hour would be huge both within the unions and in changing the way the American public sees the legitimacy of the demand. Campaigners have done a good job of moving some of the perceptions of fast food workers from a picture of entry level teen jobs to a recognition that many older workers with families are now supporting themselves by asking if you want fries with that. With homecare workers there is no confusion. These are inordinately African-American, Latino, and new immigrant women hanging onto the only job many find available and doing the thankless, but vital, tasks of caring for elderly and other clients in their homes. People may like a big Mac or a Whooper, but they love their homecare workers and depend on them for life-and-death care for their loved ones.
Real actions of homecare workers on the issue of their wages changes everything about $15 per hour. What was fanciful, becomes real for them. For the unions though there are risks. Greenhouse reports grousing within SEIU that leadership have spent millions trying to see a new jurisdiction in fast food, when their own members are low paid. Wrong whine, but fair complaint. SEIU – and other unions – need to invest significantly in organizing new jurisdictions. And, the emperors have to wear real clothes. Recently, NYU Professor Ruth Milkman’s painful comments on the fast food campaign flatly stated that, “While that’s a very visible campaign, they have yet to organize.” Ouch, even though her words had the ring of truth.
For homecare workers and even many janitors and security workers, all of which are the heart blood of SEIU, a real fight to get $15 per hour on the job under all of their agreements would upset the symbiotic relationships with politicians, employers, and legislators that often has been the key to winning the organizing rights and the contracts in the first place. If this first step by thousands of homecare workers triggers real movement and a real campaign among the half-million union members for higher wages finally, that’s not only a real campaign and real organizing, but finally we could have a gamechanger in moving lower waged workers up to something approaching a living wage.