An Ambitious Plan to Get People to Rethink Themselves and One Another
Continued from previous page
In a visit to a Connecticut home in February, I meet Erika (not her real name), a 56-year-old woman suffering from arthritis, muscle loss and bone pain. Erika is a large woman in a small apartment, and there’s not a cry she makes that isn’t heard by Mel (not her real name, either), her live-in caregiver from Liberia. “I can’t hear her cry and not come—that’s not my nature,” Mel tells me. Cooped up and frustrated, Erika is not the silent suffering kind, to be honest. It all adds up to a 24/7 job for Mel, although she is paid for only twenty-one hours per week. Erika, who is on public assistance, says she “loves” her “angel” Mel but can’t afford a full-time employee. Ostensibly, Mel could take on other clients, but on $12.30 per hour for twenty-one hours, plus the food and home expenses she must pay for, she can’t afford to travel to other clients. (There’s no travel allowance for homecare workers.) Besides, she has no idea how she’d find more clients. Now she’s facing days without pay altogether when Erika goes into the hospital for surgery. (Erika’s benefits won’t cover homecare if the client’s not at home, even if the worker is still working.)
Mel and Erika went together to the State Capitol to lobby for collective bargaining rights. This past March, Connecticut homecare aides who are paid through government programs such as Medicaid voted 1,228 to 365 to join a division of District 1199, SEIU and form Connecticut Home Care United, the first-ever union for the state’s in-home care providers. Governor Dannel Malloy paved the way for the vote when he signed an executive order last year, but the legislature has yet to approve a bill that would grant a right to collective bargaining.
When I ask her about her prospects, Mel, exhausted and exasperated, weeps. “I support the union,” she says, “but I don’t really see how it can help me. I’m trapped.”
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As Engels and the feminists knew, the “private” sphere is a tough place to regulate. The Marxist plan was to de-privatize and collectivize care. That’s rarely mentioned these days, but Karen Higgins, co-president of National Nurses United, does worry about simply going along with the trend toward homecare. “Obviously, we want people to have choices, but it can’t be driven by budgets,” she says. “As nurses, we’re still seeing the blowback from the deinstitutionalization of mental care.”
The SEIU’s Solomon says the shift toward homecare must come with extra regulation and oversight. In terms of what the union can offer Mel, in several states where they represent caregivers, unions have created a registry of potential clients for their members—but people like Mel (and Erika) need more. They need everything from free, high-quality healthcare to affordable healthy housing to reliable public transportation—and how about cheap, durable smartphones to connect workers to lawyers and one another?
As union rights are won, will workers like Mel be more than dues-paying members with PR-friendly faces for their union? Mel has a voice and a story to tell, but she needs the power to change the conditions she’s living in.