On April 15, 2002, home health aides in Oregon staged a high-spirited Tax Day Rally. Aimed at the state, as Tax Day rallies often are, these workers issued a clear demand: They wanted state and federal taxes withheld from their paychecks. At the rally’s climax, a delegation of home care workers presented an oversized check to the state Department of Revenue to show government officials the millions of dollars that Oregon could have collected throughout the year, if only state taxes had been withheld from the paychecks of several thousand home health care aides at work in the state.
Yes, read that again: a group of Americans was insisting on the right to pay taxes. Several thousand of them had recently voted to join Local 503 of the Service Employees International Union. In their first bargaining session, they ranked health insurance, workers’ compensation, wage increases, no cuts to clients, tax withholding and training as their top issues. Here were women seeking to win equal citizenship at work and through work. The home care aides challenged both their economic and their political marginalization—indeed, they articulated these as integrally tied. In doing so, they sought the enhanced power and legitimacy that millions of other women, immigrants, and people of color had gained through public sector unions since the 1970s. Paying taxes was but one sign of that new dignity and citizenship.
Public-sector unionism, especially for women, has long meant redefining work and rights for many low-wage workers, especially women. The jobs of school custodians, cafeteria workers, hospital orderlies, or teachers, had been stigmatized, associated with dirt, refuse, bodies, welfare, and dependence. The nation’s basic labor laws—the National Labor Relations Act; the Social Security Act; and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulates maximum hours, minimum wages, and overtime compensation—excluded from their inception service workers in public agencies, as well as the nonprofit or charitable sector. Although enacted in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act still did not cover state and local workers by the early 1970s.
Public-sector unionism fundamentally changed the status of these jobs. Prior to the 1960s and ’70s, public workers’ organizations lacked legal rights. They had no right to bargain, arbitrate disputes, or strike. Government workers could be fired simply for joining a union. Many public workers labored under conditions that resembled those of involuntary servitude. Hospital staff in New York, for example, often made less than the minimum wage per hour and were forced to turn to public assistance. Employers deducted wages to pay for uniforms. Workers routinely faced 12-hour shifts and endured erratic and arbitrary schedules, often 10 to 12 days without a day off. Lunch breaks became manipulative tools, with supervisors adding or subtracting lunch time based on personal favoritism. Supervisors could fire workers on the spot.
When Local 1199, Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, organized these workers in the 1960s, the union demanded basic features of employment taken for granted by white collar office staff and blue-collar factory workers. The hospital workers wanted a set of standard pay rates, legally enforceable overtime pay, a grievance procedure, and provisions for sick leave and vacation pay. With the first union contracts, hospital administrators had to see them and bargain with them as citizen workers empowered and dignified by new civil rights laws, extension of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and by their newly formed trade unions. The new unionism sought human dignity by redefining work that had been racialized and feminized.
Local 1199 also enabled these workers to become active political participants. The union formed legislative committees to meet with state senators and other representatives, organize petition drives, and change laws that denied public-sector workers labor rights; worker delegations joined with civil rights leaders and went to Albany to testify at legislative hearings and lobby. Tellingly the union called its lobbying campaign for a collective bargaining law, “Operation First Class Citizenship.” The union won expansion of New York state law to allow collective bargaining in New York City’s voluntary hospitals (finally winning a labor right many other workers had won 30 years earlier).
Each of the movements to unionize public workers has sought this “operation first class citizenship”—for themselves but also for others. Public workers made the case for high-quality services, dependable benefits, and fair procedures. From its earliest years in the 1920s, the American Federation of Teachers stood up for better school funding and decent class sizes. In the 1960s, social workers who unionized in key places fought for fair hearings and due process for welfare and Medicaid recipients. In the 1980s and ’90s, home care workers sought more sustained care for their clients. Thus public workers opened more pressure points within the political process for public claims upon the state. They helped reformulate economic and political citizenship.
Last spring, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRWLDF) filed lawsuits in Michigan and Illinois in the opening salvo of the larger battle to roll back public-sector unionism. The suits challenge the union representation and bargaining rights of home-care aides and child-care workers. The NRWLDF revives anti-union legal arguments from the pre-public union era, claiming that bargaining and arbitration constitute impermissible delegation of governmental power to private parties. The state, NRWLDF asserts, has no right to authorize unions as representatives of care workers in negotiations with state oversight authorities.
Drawing on the gendered nature of the labor and the workers, the suit went even further to deny that care work is real work. William Messenger, staff attorney for the NRWLDF, wrote, “Providers are simply a group of citizens who receive monies from a government program.” Instead of being workers who can organize, care workers are recast as poor women who have no rights. The recent efforts by Governors Scott Walker and Chris Christie draw from the same deep wells of anti-unionism, but they also draw on disdain for the work itself and those who do it—the taint of dependency as something that is feminized and racialized.
More than ever, though, America has a vast care work economy. The labor in this economy is done by millions of hospital workers, nursing home aides, child-care workers, pre-school teachers, mental health and substance abuse counselors, social and human services specialists, occupational therapists, and physical trainers. Women’s labors—once considered outside the market or at the periphery of economic life—have now become central to the economy and strategic sites for workers’ struggle.
The protesters opposing Governor Walker’s phony “budget repair bill” resisted with proud, confident claims about care. Protest signs read, “Care About Educators Like They Care For Your Child.” Protesters embraced a public-sector unionism tradition that linked care to collective citizenship rights. Perhaps this opens a moment when it doesn’t have to be gendered in a stigmatizing way. On the evening of February 26, something remarkable occurred in Madison. The Madison police were ordered into the capitol building to arrest the demonstrators occupying it. But the police refused to arrest or remove them. Brian Austin, a representative of the Madison police union, announced instead that the police would stay there in solidarity with the nurses, teachers, home care aides, students, custodians, and other civil servants. Whereas the governor served corporate and elite business interests, Austin said, “Every one of us here took an oath to protect and serve the members of our community.”
Austin’s inclusive statement equated different forms of service and caring labor as equally valid and worthy. What enabled Wisconsinites and Americans around the country to see and act on that kind of solidarity? Unionism. Maybe if we could recognize where the real class struggle is, we could create new forms of solidarity, too.
Photo credit: ra_hurd