in the news

Marta Russell ap888 at
Fri Feb 26 17:21:32 PST 1999

Doug Henwood wrote:

> A couple of items from today's papers suggest that all those folks looking
> to a crash to revive the fortunes of the working class may be missing the
> charms of a strong economy. First, the SEIU has succeeded in organizing
> home health care workers in California, archetypes of the low-wage side of
> the "new economy."


> And with the home health
> care workers, there can be little doubt that a low unemployment rate has
> partly dispelled their fears of signing a union card. I'll bet Alan
> Greenspan is not looking kindly on these developments.


How can the organization of homecare workers affect Greenspan one way or another? The homecare workers under the California IHSS program bargain with government, not private industry. And, the homecare workers union in California has been around for years. The reason the vote is occuring now is because of legislation that was passed several years ago allowing for the creation of a public authority (in counties which opt to do this) for the union to bargain with.

I think people need to be aware that there is more going on than just the organizing of workers. The whole issue offers a chance to better understand some issues from the stand point of disablement.

The unionization of homecare workers is a mixed bag for people with disabilities, with many people, including myself approaching this one a bit cautiously. Mostly the mix has to do with power differentials. How to balance the power between the disabled person who is theoretically the employer (although the county pays the wages, the disabled person hires the worker and directs the tasks) in need of services and the attendant who is the worker?

For example, there are old attitudes which often cause problems for the self determination of the disabled person. Traditional caregivers tend to want to control the disabled person, as they "know what is best." But the independent living movement philosophy is that disabled people know whats best for themselves. Unfortunately many health care workers are still in the old school of thinking in a patronizing way about the people they perform such services for. We've tried to get the union to deal with this patronizing that goes on and hopefully there will be some changes in attitudes to elevate worker's consciousness beyond the "savior" mentality to one that places the relationship on equal footing. Frankly their representatives have been some of the worst in this department.

Secondly, it is very important that disabled people be in charge of firing a worker on the spot with no union inteference. Many many people on the program have been ripped off by their attendants, had their valubles stolen and been beat up by their attendants. You can well imagine a disabled person would have a hard time stopping someone from stealing from them or from abusing them physically or emotionally. I have heard from people who have said that the only way they could get rid of the abusive worker was to change the locks on the door so that the worker could not get into their home. Initiating a union grievance process would, in some cases, be life threatening to the disabled person who needed to get rid of an abusive attendant.

The home is now the workplace - what about privacy issues? Do union officials have the right to go to the disabled person's home as if it were an office?

But the mixed bag also has to do with getting benefits results. There is consensus we all want raises and health care for our attendants no question, but it is highly questionable whether that is going to happen. Unfortunately, both the independent living center's lobbyist and the SEIU who were working with legislators on the wording of the public authority legislation let the state off the hook when it signed legislation that did not mandate the state to pay a portion of any increases in pay and health care. This means that now as it stands, if these benefits are to be made manifest the counties - who pay the homecare workers - will have to bear the cost. In my opinion it is highly unlikely that counties will do this.

We have had to insist on a no strike clause. Can you imagine the disaster of attendants leaving quadriplegics on a walk out? So the muscle to get raises by strikes is impossible due to the nature of the caregiving tasks.

Yes, it is a big victory for the union as an organization but what the bigger issue is - will it do a damn thing for the workers and how will disabled people's autonomy fare in the process? Some people believe that now the union has its public authority, upped it membership and will be collecting dues that very little progress will be made from here on. The county most probably will move very very slow in getting around to putting a pay raise on its agenda. So what will the union do - buy the board of supervisors into it?

So what we have is a union that will collect dues from the poor minimum wage workers, many of whom do not even work 20 hours a week, but not really much hope for improvement. I have a very close friend who has been a union home care worker since it was started and she has been saying this from the beginning.

Hopefully all this will do something for workers, and everyone will be better off, but there is much ground to cover to get there. Illusions are everywhere these days.


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