When Dorothy Glenn and Flora Johnson, two home care workers who belong to the SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas, first started out in their line of work, both made just $1 an hour. By the end of this year, thanks to the collective bargaining agreement reached by their union, they’ll be making $13 an hour. They also now have health care and paid training opportunities thanks to agreements obtained by the union. Such benefits could now become harder to secure.
On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the case Harris v. Quinn that was not as wide-sweeping as some labor advocates had worried — making it so that any public employees could opt out of paying union dues even if a union is negotiating on their behalf — but still ruled that home care workers in Illinois, who are paid by the state through Medicaid, no longer have to pay union fees. That loss of money could make it harder for the union to continue its organizing work.
“It’s hard enough to organize workers as it is, there are lots of obstacles that arise,” Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, told ThinkProgress. “Any new obstacle, particularly one that telegraphs that if workers choose to form a union they’re going to have to carry the full freight [of the fees] may be something of a disincentive.”
But unionized workers like Dorothy Glenn and Flora Johnson are not deterred. “No, absolutely no, court case is going to stop us from staying united and standing up for good jobs and quality home care. No matter what,” Glenn said. “We will not be separated. There’s power in numbers. And as long as we keep our numbers, we have the power.”
Glenn became a home care provider in 1972 when she took her sister out of an institution where she had been badly injured. “I was only making one dollar per hour. There was no health care, there was no training,” she said. “I felt like my sister and I were living in the shadow and we had no voices.” When she would try to get the state, which was paying her salary, to give her a raise, she was told she should just put her sister back into a nursing home. But Glenn noted that her sister’s condition has improved from living at home and continuing to be part of the community. “That makes a difference,” she said.
At the same time that she was caring for her sister, she was raising three children on her own. Her husband had passed away. On $1 an hour, “there was no way I could keep food on my table, a roof over our heads. I was struggling each and every day.”
That all changed when she helped organize and join the SEIU. “It dramatically changed my life,” she said. “Every personal assistant’s life has been changed.”
Johnson had a similar experience. She’s cared for her son, who has cerebral palsy, for his entire life. But before the union, she was also making $1 an hour without benefits or training. “We were invisible,” she said. Now things have changed. “It has made a difference in how I can pay my bills,” she said. “When you’re making such little you have to rob Peter to pay Paul, but sometimes Peter don’t have any money.”
“We’ll not go back,” she said. “No court case can stop home care workers from sticking together and fighting for good quality care and good jobs.”
Richard Stowell has also seen the changes first hand from both the worker and consumer side. His son was in a car accident 12 years ago and is now quadriplegic. “I learned how to take care of him and when we finally got him his own apartment, I started working as a caregiver for somebody else,” he said.
“When I first started hiring people to take care of my son, wages were probably around seven dollars,” he said. Hiring a caregiver can be very difficult, particularly when the nature of the work is so intimate — helping people to bathe, dress, and toilet. “When wages were only $7 or $8, we’d find people but couldn’t hang on to them, they’d stay a couple of months and find something else because the wages were too low,” he said.
But the higher wages have helped to interrupt that cycle. “Now at $11.50, $12 an hour, it’s a worthwhile job people can actually stay in,” he said. Turnover has decreased, and “when we hire somebody we know they’ve got experience.” The training that was guaranteed through the union has also helped raise the quality of the workers.
Training has also helped him become a better caregiver to a client. He works with another man who is also quadriplegic, helping him live independently in his own home and hold down a job. “It’s an important job to the guy I work for, it makes it possible for him to have the kind of life he’s got in his own apartment,” he said. “To me the wage increases are more about respect and dignity than about the money… It’s a measure of respect toward the worker that this society does at least value to some degree the important work that we do.”
“To me, the union makes just all kind of sense,” he said. “It’s been good for the workers, good for the consumers who live in homes, good for the state of Illinois and the whole country, because it saves money to keep people in their homes.” And he’s not overly concerned about the Harris ruling. “We don’t need five old white men in Washington, D.C. to give us permission to organize ourselves. We’re going to do it with them or without them,” he said.
Keith Kelleher, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas, is also upbeat. “Of course I’m concerned,” he said. “But we’re going to continue to organize, not only in this unit but also in private sector home care.” The Harris ruling impacted the 26,000 members in the public sector, but the union also represents 25,000 home care workers in the private sector who work for corporations. “We’re making a determined plan to go out and organize and we think there could be as many as double that,” he said. “Not to mention Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas too.”
And the loss of fees may not be an immediate blow. “We did a renewal push in the last couple of months and signed 1,000 people,” he said. “I’d say 90 to 95 percent of the people we talk to end up joining.”
“There’s nothing about the decision that undermines the union’s negotiation with the state over wages and conditions of employment,” NELP’s Owens said. “The impact really has to do with these fees and whether ultimately this decision would actually prompt a lot of union members to vote with their feet and leave the union. I think that’s unlikely as long as they continue to see a benefit of union membership.” The decision could make it harder to win workers over to the union in a situation where they are evenly split in their support. “But that’s not typically the case in a low-wage organizing effort,” she added.
And the members themselves have plans to carry on. “We’re going to raise the minimum wage,” Johnson said. “We have plans to reach $15 an hour.”