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An Ambitious Plan to Get People to Rethink Themselves and One Another

A new campaign called "Caring Across Generations," has in mind nothing less than a 180-degree turn in the way that Americans think about themselves, one another, and the economy.

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You might say: Organize! And that is what Caring Across Generations is doing. “Frankly,” says Ai-jen Poo, who started working on this issue at the height of the economic crash, “we thought, There’s a jobs crisis, there’s a care crisis. We should create millions of quality jobs in homecare. Caregivers will benefit. Care receivers will benefit. Everyone is touched by it. Let’s do it!”

There’s just one problem. Although a few states have extended some wage and hours protections to homecare workers, these workers enjoy no federal right to form a union or bargain collectively. There’s not even a real collective; the workforce is isolated in homes—a private worksite where, as Friedrich Engels put it, women are either openly or covertly “enslaved” in the name of “caring.” Poo and her comrades are undaunted: indeed, they are taking aim at the very isolation that makes their tasks as organizers of this fragmented workforce so difficult—seeking above all else to build the connections that may make a breakthrough possible.

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Last July, with Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice, Poo co-hosted a national town hall meeting at the Washington Hilton to launch the Caring Across Generations campaign. Spilling off the stage was a cavalcade of workers, seniors and people with disabilities—mostly women—representing virtually every constituency touched by the care crisis.

Exuding more can-do spirit than the capital was accustomed to, the campaign’s collaborators spanned the community/labor spectrum, from AFSCME and the SEIU to 9 to 5, the Alliance of Retired Americans, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the YWCA. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, the daughter of a domestic worker, addressed the 700-strong crowd: “America must be a nation where dignity and respect are afforded equally and rightfully to caregivers and to loved ones alike.”

The White House’s Valerie Jarrett made an appearance. Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, spoke too, but the stars of the day were caregivers and -receivers, people like the Direct Care Alliance’s Tracy Dudzinski, who has been working in this field for fifteen years in Wisconsin. “The public thinks we are companions or bedpan changers. We are the eyes, ears and backbone of the care system,” declared Dudzinski to cheers.

Rabbi Felicia Sol, of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, described the funerals she attends where the deceased’s doctors rarely appear, “but almost always there’s an immigrant woman of color who has provided dignity and care.”

Jessica Lehman, of Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association, spoke about her ability to work full time despite her physical handicaps, because of her home health aide. “Without attendants, I would have no control over my life. I couldn’t work. I wouldn’t be paying taxes. I’d be living in an institution,” said Lehman. Her group, mostly employers, goes to rallies, signs petitions and gives testimony in defense of caregivers because, as she says, “My quality of life depends on their quality of life.”

After lunch, what seemed like the entire Caring Across Generations conference headed to Capitol Hill to lobby against cuts to Medicaid and Medicare—with the artwork of the children who’d spent the morning in conference-provided childcare.

Caring Across Generations, like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, aims to build relationships between those doing the work and those they’re working for. (That’s why it is rigorous about workers’ leadership, multi-language translation and creating activities where participants can bring their kids.) Its agenda is “interdependent” too. At last count, more than 200 groups were signed on as campaign partners—and member groups can’t sign up for just their “piece” of the plan. The federal policy solution CAG proposes would create 2 million new jobs in homecare, with new safety, hours and wage protections, as well as organizing rights for workers. Those jobs would come with training and certification to improve the quality of care and create a path to citizenship for those who participate in the training programs. Poo argues that because homecare is cheaper than care in institutions, the extra costs should be manageable. “Besides, it’s not manageable or acceptable to be balancing our books on the backs of our caregivers or shortchanging people in need.” She also argues for cuts to the defense budget, imposing financial transaction taxes and increasing corporate taxation to open up new revenue streams. CAG is fighting to expand Medicaid and Medicare, and to protect Social Security and healthcare spending too.

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