The Weaker Unions are the More People Like Them

New Orleans   Gallup released a poll on the eve of Labor Day. There are so many polls out there these days, it’s easy to forget they still do this. The top line of their survey seemed like good news, 61% of those surveyed, and by extension, the American people, now say they “like” unions, the highest rating for labor organizations since 2003.

Gallup says that since the 1930s and the reforms of the Great Depression, unions have enjoyed high popularity.

Historically, unions have enjoyed strong support from the American public. In 1936, 72% of Americans approved of labor unions. Union approval peaked in the 1950s when it reached 75% in 1953 and 1957. Approval remained in the 60% range throughout the 2000s, right up to the election of Barack Obama as president. After plummeting in 2009, union approval remained lower than in its heyday but began climbing.

Of course there’s vast polarization in the support. 81% of Democrats are fans, while only 42% of the Republicans like them.

But, there’s a troubling head-scratcher in the equation.

Why would support fall with the election of Barack Obama, we might ask? We were in the throes of the Great Recession. Workers had been stuck with falling wages and fleeing job opportunities that provided living wages. Unemployment was soaring. Isn’t that the time that the call to unionize should have been the loudest, and the support the strongest?

Unions had vastly supported Obama. He had seemed to promise he might even lend a hand in achieving some labor law reforms that might help assist unions in organizing and thereby regaining lost members. He talked about raising the minimum wage. Wouldn’t that indicate that unions would be seen more favorably?

Not from what these numbers from Gallup seem to say. When politics and government in the time of Bush and now Trump, seem to be moving towards the rich and against workers, then people seem to want unions to be stronger to oppose these shifts and act as bulwarks against their excesses. When politics and government seem to be favoring workers, even just a little bit, then they worry that unions are becoming too powerful, ignoring that the membership figures have been falling faster than an avalanche.

These survey results seem to indicate that the American public likes unions, not necessarily as vibrant labor organizations for workers, but more as a kind of “checks and balances” for the public against the vicissitudes of the economy. Gallup also noted that 39% of those surveyed said that unions should have more influence, the highest number they have recorded in the 18 years of asking the question.

All of this seems little comfort. It seems that the weaker unions are becoming, the more people are prone to liking unions and missing their former strength that people wish they played in the economy. Worse unions seem in danger of joining a bad list. One that includes the fact that people want better drainage and storm protection, but they don’t want to pay for it. People want better public infrastructure, services, and schools, but they bridle at the cost. And, on and on.

In the same way it seems people want stronger unions, they just don’t necessarily want to join them.


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?