Judy Wahlberg: The sexist agenda hidden in Harris v. Quinn

AFSCME Council 5 President Judy Wahlberg

AFSCME Council 5 President Judy Wahlberg

Any day now, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on Harris v. Quinn, the most important labor law case in decades. The lawsuit is another attempt to kill off public employee unions. It centers on a small group of Illinois home care workers who sued to avoid paying fees to the very union that would negotiate 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 America to choose a union.

While that’s troubling enough, the case is about more than workers’ rights. It potentially opens up yet another front in the nationwide war on women now raging from state legislatures to our doctor’s office and our bank accounts. Here’s why.

The face of the working poor is a mother struggling to feed, shelter and educate her children. She’s working multiple jobs, but still can’t get by. She can’t put healthy food on the table and she can’t afford to live in a safe neighborhood. That’s because her profession is undervalued and her hard work isn’t recognized with a decent paycheck. Chances are she is a caregiver, one of millions of women who help us raise our children and care for our aging parents.

There are now more than 3 million home care and family child 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 our growing, aging population.

Caregivers are with us from cradle to grave. Child care providers make sure our kids are healthy, learning and safe. Home care providers assist the elderly and people with disabilities who want to live in their own homes instead of an institution. These workers cook, clean, make beds and do laundry. Many also provide health-related care like changing bandages, monitoring medical equipment, and administering medication. It’s physically demanding work. Anyone who thinks that lifting children and helping 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 provide women with a path out of poverty so they can support their families.

That’s why so many women have come together to form unions. The average salary for home care workers and child care providers is about $20,000. But caregivers represented by a union have seen their salaries increase by as much as 65 percent, reflecting the grueling demands of the work.

It’s simple. When women join unions, we gain a voice on the job. That gives us the power to get the fair and equitable compensation we deserve. We close the income gap. We 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 the workplace, the inequalities of the past will begin to fade away. Nearly 60 percent of women would earn more if they were paid the same amount as men, and the poverty rate would be cut in half.

We have already lost too much time and too much compensation owed for our work.

Caregivers have a better shot at the American Dream when they choose a union to represent them. The evidence of that is clear. The question now is whether the Supreme Court will side with hardworking women, or put the judicial seal of approval on income inequality.

– Judy Wahlberg is president of AFSCME Council 5, a union of 43,000 public service workers in Minnesota.

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