On its surface, the case known as Harris v. Quinn now before the Supreme Court is yet another attempt to kill off public employee unions. It centers on a small group of home health care aides in Illinois who sued to avoid paying fees to the very union that negotiated their wages and benefits. Their lawyers are asking the high court to go even further and rule against the right of all public workers -- in every state and every sector -- to choose a union.
And while that's certainly troubling enough, this case is about more than workers' rights. It potentially opens up yet another front in the war on women now raging from the statehouse to our doctor's office to our bank accounts. Here's why:
There are now nearly 2 million home health care providers in the United States, and more than 90 percent are women. With Americans living longer and baby boomers entering their golden years, it is expected that more than 5 million providers will be needed in the next five years to assist this growing, aging population.
Home care providers assist men and women with disabilities and the elderly who want to live in their own homes instead of an institution. Home care activities include cooking, cleaning, making beds, and doing laundry. Many provide health-related care like changing bandages, monitoring medical equipment, and administering medication. Make no mistake: It is physically demanding work. Anyone who thinks that lifting a client in and out of bed every day isn't work has probably never done it.
Yet many of these jobs pay too little, have inadequate benefits, and don't always provide women with a sustained, meaningful way to get out of poverty or to support themselves and their families. For too many of these workers, the American Dream remains out of reach. I know this because I was a home care provider.
That's why so many women have come together to form unions. The average salary for home health care providers is $20,000. But workers represented by a union, like the litigants in the Harris case, saw their salaries increase by as much as 65 percent, reflecting the grueling demands of the work. It's simple. When women join unions, that voice on the job gives them a better chance of being more fairly compensated. They close the earning gap. They climb out of poverty.
A ruling undermining unions in the Harris case would bring that progress to a halt and deal a significant blow to pay equity for women, as well as fair treatment in the workplace.
Let's be candid about why cases like Harris v. Quinn are rising to the Supreme Court. Women make up 45 percent of union membership and will become the majority by 2020. That has anti-worker forces worried. They know that if women enjoy collective bargaining rights and have a strong voice in their workplaces, the inequalities of the past -- which favored their power and bottom line -- will begin to fade away. Nearly 60 percent of women would earn more if they were paid the same as men, and the poverty rate for women would be cut in half.
We have already lost too much time and, frankly, too much compensation owed for our work.
I know that providers have a better chance at financial stability when they choose a union to represent them. The evidence on that is clear. The question now is whether the Supreme Court justices will side with hard-working women and men, or rule in favor of those clinging to the inequalities of the past.