Opinion: Care Workers of the World, Unite!

Illustration by Amanda Weiss

Why a healthcare workers’ strike would protect your loved ones.

by G. Holleran

When I tell people that I’m a home healthcare worker for my disabled adult brother, they often become visibly uncomfortable.

“Doesn’t it make you feel weird that you’re getting paid to assist someone in your family?”

My answer has always been a firm no. Working as a caregiver for my brother is not an indication that I don’t love him. I don’t see him as a means to make income. And I would still be present in his life if I weren’t getting paid, although being compensated allows me to spend more time with him than I would be able to otherwise. 

While I do make the decision now to provide regular care for my brother, it wasn’t always a choice. As the sibling of an individual with high-support needs, I’ve been acutely aware of the amount of labor that care entails since I was a small child. My life has been shaped by care work, even if I didn’t always know it. 

Care work—a sector which includes healthcare workers, teachers, nursery school employees, nannies, and workers in day programs and residential settings, to name a few—is incredibly taxing labor, yet care workers commonly receive very low wages or, in the case of stay-at-home parents and families of folks with high-support needs, nothing at all.

The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence, authored by the London-based Care Collective and published by Verso in 2020, addresses the problem in detail: “Care has long been devalued due, in large part, to its association with women, the feminine and what have been seen as the ‘unproductive’ caring professions. Care work therefore remains consistently subject to less pay and social prestige.” The emphasis on gender is important here, as the care work sector is predominated by women of color.

I would love it if workers didn’t have to commodify their physical, mental, and emotional labor power at all—but while capitalism persists and this remains a necessity, care needs to be validated at the same level as other types of work. It is crucial that care workers receive the benefits they deserve; that means higher wages, hazard pay, fully-staffed facilities, paid sick leave and vacation, and access to health insurance—in other words, it means unionization.

As a home healthcare worker, I was eligible to join SEIU District 1199 New England. Because of their work, I’ve received personal protective equipment (PPE) and collected modest hazard pay for the most dire months of the Covid-19 pandemic. My wages are currently at $16.25/hour—a substantial increase from the $15/hour I made three years ago when my brother qualified to be on a payroll program, subsidized by the state, that allows him to hire his own in-home staff. 

While these benefits are wonderful for someone in my position—being a home healthcare worker is not my vocation, nor is it my primary source of income—and a marked improvement from how things would be without the union, they are not enough for those who make their living solely from care work.

This is most evident in Connecticut nursing homes and group living facilities. Despite having to show up on the frontlines of a deadly pandemic, these workers faced PPE shortages, understaffing, and insufficient wages. Even under normal conditions, $16.25/hour isn’t nearly enough to live on, especially in our state. And because their employers do not grant them access to quality and affordable health insurance, many workers are forced to take on multiple jobs.

For these reasons and more, thousands of unionized nursing home and group home workers have been on the verge of striking several times over the past several months, which tends to invoke another common reaction:

“If these workers care about their clients so much, why are they abandoning them to go on strike?”

I don’t blame people for having responses like this—they are endemic in an economic system where “care” and “work” aren’t meant to be used concurrently. Care isn’t supposed to be work, it’s supposed to be altruistic. People shouldn’t provide care because they want to make money—being called a hero should suffice. Article headlines like this enforce an anti-care narrative by focusing on the disservice a strike would pay to the folks receiving care, rather than the disservice currently being paid to the workers. The idea of giving real compensation is so unheard of that the idea of nursing and group home workers receiving a $20/hour minimum wage is portrayed as outrageous, as inconvenient to the individuals in their care. 

But how does having underpaid, exhausted staff help individuals with high-support needs? How does neglecting care workers do anything to sustain the robust networks of care necessary for society’s most vulnerable members to flourish? The Care Manifesto states, “The capacities of those employed to provide care are severely diminished through ongoing exploitation, understaffing, poor pay, time constraints, inadequate or non-existent job security and a lack of training and support.” I have seen these consequences firsthand as wonderful, qualified aides at my brother’s day program have had to quit for these exact reasons.

Care workers do the jobs that most of society cannot be bothered with, and they are rewarded with a pittance. The truth is most people would rather not think about care workers or the people they care for, which is why something like nursing and group home strikes can provoke such discomfort. When care workers make their existence known, in this case via strike, everyone else is forced to think about the fact that there is a large segment of fellow human beings who require care. Without these truly essential workers, huge swaths of the population would be helpless—or people would be forced to quit their “real jobs” to take up the work no longer being provided to their loved ones.

Everybody likes it better when care workers shut up and avoid causing disruptions. This is precisely why strikes work. It is not a coincidence that Governor Lamont, who initially threatened to use the National Guard to cross the picket lines, ended up making negotiations that allowed 1199 to call off the strikes

The solution is not for care workers to accept the unacceptable; it is the opposite. By exerting pressure on the state to allocate funds to meet their demands, 1199 union workers were able to get a $20/hour wage in most nursing homes. And if a strike were to happen, the results of a winning bargain would provide elderly and disabled individuals with the kind of long-term, quality care they deserve, even if the moment of the strike is difficult.

Above all, those criticizing striking workers must remember that strikes can always be avoided—provided the institution in power meets the workers’ demands.

The onus is not on workers to stop striking, it is on these institutions—including the state—to start valuing workers, especially care workers, over profits. While this can never truly happen under capitalism, unions help care workers achieve their demands, giving them more of the dignity they deserve. 

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