There’s a case before the U.S. Supreme Court about direct care workers for people with disabilities and others who may need such services that could profoundly affect in-home supports.

A recent article about it summaries the issues this way.

“Over the last decade, more than 20,000 of these workers in Illinois voted to organize and won wage increases by joining the Service Employees International Union. But the National Right to Work Foundation, an anti-union advocacy group, sued Gov. Pat Quinn and the SEIU, accusing the state and union of conspiring to re-label private care providers as state employees so they could collect more union fees.”

Our community has long lamented the low pay and high turnover in direct care. It seems to me what the workers in Illinois are attempting to do is take concrete steps to change that. Seminars and career paths, feel good events and proclamations are all great ways to let people who take daily care of people who need it, often back aching work that many of us would be hard pressed to do, know that they are appreciated by some small portion of the population and that we as an advocacy community are fully supportive of elevating the status of these jobs. But we all know that the first step to elevating anyone’s employment status in a market-based economy such as ours is to get them more money for what they do. It’s really that simple.

How to do it has not been so simple though, even though it seems that it should be. Who’s against people getting a fair wage for a fair day’s work? Lately it appeares that a significant number of vocalized opinions have all kinds of reasons for not supporting efforts to increase the wgaes of some of the most overworked and underpaid people in the workforce. Much of the opposition has a scattershot cluster of fringe reasons. “Paying people more will reduce job opportunities.” Not true generally according to studies. But espeically not true for direct care workers who are in a high demand unlikely to dimish as more and more people look for supports they need to live at home. “Higher wages are no substitute for a good education and a secure family and social structure.” Agreed, but it does happen to be the the first and foremost rung of any ladder up. It’s awfully hard to concentrate on edcuation and social structure when you are hungry, sick and struggling to keep a roof over your head. You get my drift.

One such diversionary bugaboo is that unions are bad.

Anti-union groups, corporations and other competitors have been pitching that one for  years. They deflect the issues of decent pay for hard work to focus public attention on instances of union corruption and overreach. In the Illinois case they are highlighting family members who don’t want to pay union dues. Another of those argumments that sounds good in a sound bite but falls apart if you think about it even for a minute. In this case the same logic applies to them as anybody else in a similar situation. Like I was, in fact. If you’re getting paid—and they are; otherwise it would not be an issue at all—primarily through Medicaid, to help keep people out of institutions, where most of the workers are union by the by—and your pay benefits from the advocacy of others, it is only fair that you help share in the cost of providing that advocacy.  I suppose you could refuse the raises and forego the fees. Certainly that could be written in to any law if Illnois or any other entity wanted to take it off the table but I would imagine supprt for such an amendment would find scant rapidly dwindling support when paid family cartakers staretd adding things up.

Throughout the history of labor it has been clear that those with lower status because of lower pay have been most effective in elevating themselves by working collectively. That means organizing. That means unions, or a reasonable substitute.

Unions are no fix-all for income inequality. And like any organization, there are good ones and bad ones and everything in between.  This variability can be found everywhere there are poeple in positions of power. Cases can be made for the corruptability and incompetence of goverments, corporations, charities, religous organizations, you name it. There are bad actors to be found there and they should be rooted out, just as they should with unions if and when they crop up.

Sure, you’ve had the bad years of the teamsters and “On the Waterfront.” But you’ve also had the breaking of corporate strangleholds on the coal, steel, automotive and railroad industries. In fact a history of collective bargaining is a road map for how laborers in industries across the board elevated their status from the kinds of marginal jobs direct care workers are struggling in now, and the economy is still struggling from in hundreds of thousands of other similar positions, to decent, middle class wages. It was a key component in the building of the U.S middle class, which, until recently, was the envy of the world

Supreme Court watchers believe that the conservative bent of the current court might spell trouble for the Illinois workers attempt to use a tried and true strategy for elevating the work that they do. I hope not. The first real step to letting people know we value what they do is to pay them a decent wage for doing it. As direct care workers struggle to do that by getting the right to bargain collectively, people with disabilities, their families, their advocates and the organizations they support should join in, collectively.

It may cost us some more initially but it will reap big dividends down the road.  Another philosophy that has gotten a bad rap in recent years.

Let me know what you think

Categories :
Disability in Focus