This stormy weather is heading our way
ON the snow laden steps of the United States Supreme Court, 16 women stand together. Their hoods are tightly drawn, scarves wrapped tight and hats pulled down low, but nothing can stop the icy winds spearing through to numb noses, cheeks, hands and feet.
Washington DC is in near total shutdown as the extreme ‘Polar Vortex’ storm makes an unwelcome return.
One day after the US celebrates the birthday of Martin Luther King, the women have travelled from Illinois to make sure that the nine Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States hear their voices.
Warmly ensconced inside, the justices are hearing arguments in the case of Pamela Harris v Governor Quinn of Illinois.
A decision in favour of Ms Harris is expected to seriously impact on the quality of care provided to tens of thousands of seniors and people with disabilities who make use of state-supported home care services.
It would do this by ruling the collective agreement covering more than 27,000 workers (the vast majority of whom are female and from minority groups) unconstitutional, thus undermining the stability and professionalism in the sector.
More broadly, a ruling that the current system is unconstitutional threatens the future of public sector collective bargaining across the US.
Funding comes from far right organisation
Funded by the right-wing National Right to Work Committee, home care worker Pamela Harris is challenging the requirement for home care workers to contribute towards the cost of the collective agreement covering their work.
In what is known in the US as a ‘fair share’ provision, Illinois home care workers are not required to join a labour union (in this case the Service Employees International Union), but must make a contribution , as they benefit from the wages, conditions, access to training and support negotiated by the union for all Illinois home care workers.
In fact, Ms Harris is in a separate non-unionised area of home care and has never made a contribution to the union, but has been happy to become the public face of the NRWC case aimed at de-unionising home care workers in Illinois and undermining public sector collective bargaining across the country.
The minimum wage in the US currently stands at just US$7.25. Workers at the nation’s largest private company, Walmart, earn so little that at a store in Ohio their employer held a ‘canned food drive’ instead of paying them a living wage.
In these circumstances, collective bargaining is one of the few tools that low and middle income workers have at their disposal to raise wages, safety standards and to secure benefits like healthcare and pensions.
It’s for this reason that labour unions and collective bargaining have long been enemy number one to hard-right conservatives in politics, business and academia.
In the United States, the ‘union avoidance’ industry is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Captive audience meetings, where workers are forced to attend and hear management’s anti-union message, are both legal and commonplace.
For home care workers like Chicagoan Flora Johnson, the case threatens to dismantle a program that serves 30,000 people with disabilities.
“One of those people is my son,” says Flora. “His name is Kenneth, and he was born with cerebral palsy. Many years ago, I was told that Kenneth would need to be sent to an institution for his long-term care. But home care allowed Kenneth to remain at home with our family.
“So many mothers in my position have faced an awful choice: stay at home to care for a child with a disability, or see them forced into institutions. Many of those mothers simply couldn’t afford to stay home if home care didn’t pay a decent wage.”
Under the scheme as it stands, the state pays for seniors and people with disabilities to receive home care from a provider of their choosing. This can be from an agency, an individual or a family member.
The collective agreement secured 11 years ago by Flora and other workers through the SEIU ended the revolving door in the industry, providing professional training, health care and wage rises.
Although Ms Harris wants to continue receiving state payments for caring for her son at home at the level negotiated, she doesn’t want to contribute to the cost of maintaining the collective agreement.
Collective bargaining is one of the few tools that low and middle income workers have at their disposal to raise wages.
For Rayhnee Patrick, a home care consumer with acute full-body psoriasis that confines her to a wheelchair, the agreement has brought stability and professionalism to the industry, allowing her to continue to work and live independently in her home.
“During the ‘Polar Vortex’ storm I had a personal assistant come to me at 5 o’clock in the morning in my house,” says Rhaynee.
“She rode an hour in the snow, from the North Side of Chicago. Why was she so dedicated? Not because I’m lovely, but because she gets a really good wage, and the wage came from the unions being able to collectively bargain.
“I can actually go to work, and it’s because of her being able to pay her own bills that I’m able to pay my bills.”
For the National Right to Work Committee – a cashed up, right-wing lobby group – this case represents a golden opportunity in an ongoing war against collective bargaining and unions.
Emboldened by the march of Right to Work legislation into 24 States across America, including former union heartlands like Michigan, they are eager to press their case before what is widely considered a conservative Supreme Court.
Right to Work legislation can be most easily understood as a ‘roided up brother of WorkChoices’ Australian Workplace Agreements.
In legislating for individual contracts, undermining collective bargaining and ending ‘fair share’ provisions, it has seen union membership decline sharply at the same time that inequality has widened and become so entrenched that the “land of the free” is now one of the most unequal societies in the world.
Only seven other home care workers out of more than 27,000 have joined Ms Harris in the case, but the NRWC and a host of other conservative groups have stepped in.
With their support, the case has continued all the way to the Supreme Court, despite previously being struck out by two lower courts.
The Illinois Government estimates the existing system has actually saved the State $632 million, making it clear that NRWC and others’ support is driven not by fiscal prudence but by ideology.
Unions are seriously concerned that if the Supreme Court finds for Pamela Harris it will undermine the entire system of public sector collective bargaining, reducing their ability to successfully negotiate with employers. Over time, with no mechanism and funding to fight for the workers, both the carers and their clients and family members will suffer.
Where America goes, Australia follows
So why does this matter to Australia? Because for many in the Liberal Party, in right wing think-tanks, and in sections of the commentariat, where America goes, Australia should follow.
While fair share provisions don’t exist in Australia, there are many other protections written into the Fair Work Act and other legislation such as minimum wage that are firmly in the Government’s sights.
WorkChoices is back on the agenda, with the long term goal to undermine collective bargaining.
We’ve seen it already with the fact-free attacks on workers at SPC Ardmona, Toyota and Holden.
Companies are being targeted by the Government for striking collective bargaining agreements (Qantas has made its pitch for Government intervention by trumpeting its hard-line IR policies in the 2011 grounding).
The Government has launched a Royal Commission into unions and penalty rates are under attack.
The winners in all of this will be the big businesses who stand to benefit financially from any erosion of IR laws (and who, incidentally, donated to the Liberal Party in record numbers ahead of last year’s election) and the libertarian culture warriors who sleep with Atlas Shrugged under their pillow.
Back in the US, the Supreme Court justices heard the case for a little over an hour and are now deliberating in private, with a decision expected by June.
For Flora Johnson and everyone who braved the elements to take their message to Washington, what’s at stake couldn’t be clearer.
“Thirty years ago, home care workers in Illinois made as little as one dollar per hour. You simply can’t make ends meet on so little.
“That’s why we decided to organise and form our union. We can’t afford to go back to the bad old days — the days when home care workers were living in terrible poverty, and when seniors and people with disabilities were forced into institutions because they couldn’t find consistent care.”
Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.