Yesterday's Supreme Court ruling on Harris v. Quinn may seem like a narrow decision on the technical details of union dues. In fact, it lays bare one of the fundamental injustices to workers' rights in the U.S., and a looming policy failure as the country struggles to care for a rapidly aging population.
The root of the problem is that because we don't value caregiving work, millions of home care workers earn poverty wages taking care of our loved ones. And now, because we don't value caregiving work, they don't have the right to the same model of union representation as other public sector workers.
There are currently 2.5 million home care workers in the U.S., who every day nurture, bathe and feed our elderly parents and disabled kin and perform other lifesaving and life-giving tasks. It is their work that allows dignity and independent living in one's own home.
But for doing one of the most important jobs in our economy, these workers make $9.67 an hour -- or about $20,000 a year if they are lucky enough to get full-time hours -- with few of the health and pension benefits the rest of us enjoy. Most are women, many of them immigrants and workers of color, and fully half are forced to rely on public benefits. This, for jobs that are funded with public dollars (Medicaid).
If wages are a measure of how much our country values a group of workers' skills and contribution to the collective, then we clearly have our priorities wrong. The law is an equally damning benchmark: for decades, home care workers have not been covered by federal minimum wage and overtime protections (they will finally be covered in 2015 because of new regulations issued by the Obama administration). But most telling is the employment status of home care workers. Many labor in the no-man's land of "independent contractor" status, meaning that they don't have the right to organize because they don't have an employer to bargain with.
The good news is that in recent years, unions and state governments have developed an innovative collective bargaining models for these workers. As a result, unions have successfully organized about half a million home care workers across the U.S., with significant gains in wages and benefits. For example, in Illinois (the focus of Harris v. Quinn) home care workers will earn $13 an hour by the end of the year under their union's contract.
But the Supreme Court has just undermined the promise of this organizing strategy for home care workers, and possibly others such as publicly-subsidized child care workers. In the Justices' eyes, these workers are not "full-fledged" public employees and therefore do not have the right to the standard model of public union representation in Illinois (the ruling may also threaten organized home care workers in other states, depending on how their employment relationship is structured).
Once again, we have relegated caregiving and women's work to second-class status under the eyes of the law.
Even if the cause of workers' rights doesn't move you, the rapid aging of the population should. Every second someone in the U.S. turns 65 years old, and because of poverty wages, high turnover and inadequate public funding, 97 percent of states have reported "serious" or "very serious" shortages in their home care workforce. Left unchecked, this growing labor shortage will be especially devastating for sandwich-generation women who have a full-time job, kids at home, and aging parents who can't manage on their own anymore.
Research has shown that in home care, the quality of the job is the best predictor of the quality of care. When workers can negotiate living wages, health benefits and ongoing training, they are able to stay on the job and provide the care and independent living that our elders and people with disabilities deserve. Public policy and labor law must finally recognize caregivers as skilled workers that are essential to the country's health, and give them full rights to organize for better wages and working conditions.
Annette Bernhardt is a visiting professor of sociology at UC Berkeley and a visiting researcher at Berkeley's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. She is also a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.