Union leaders back comprehensive caregiver campaign
National Domestic Workers Alliance leader AI-Jen Poo speaks on the need for comprehensive legislation for caregivers, including higher pay, at a D.C. rally as AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler (right) waits her turn to talk. | AFL-CIO/Twitter

WASHINGTON—Saying the rest of the nation’s workforce depends on available, affordable child care and elder care—and living wages for their caregivers—top union leaders rallied behind urging Congress to enact comprehensive legislation to achieve that goal.

Gesturing to the U.S. Capitol dome, looming behind them several blocks away, Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees, and AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said achieving that aim would boost working women, especially women of color. It also would boost the overall economy by freeing them and other working women to return to the labor force.

“No one should have to make impossible choices” between working and having to care for young children, aging parents, or disabled family members, said Ai-Jen Poo. Yet millions of working women had to do that when the coronavirus pandemic hit, businesses shut down and caregivers were suddenly either unneeded or had to quit to care for their own loved ones.

Even before that, caregiving work often went unpaid. One speaker pointed out that 53% of caregivers, virtually all of them women, give care to newborns, kids and aging parents, all in their own homes.

The Feb. 28 rally was designed to revive a section of last year’s Build Back Better legislation which helped those caregivers. It would have provided additional millions of dollars to get the care industry back on its feet, creating new jobs while mandating that care employers pay the workers at least $15 an hour.

But opposition from the then-key swing BBB voter, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., forced other Democrats to ax caregivers’ funds and many other social program improvements. For-profit caregiving firms also campaigned against paying workers more money, even when state and federal funding provided the needed dollars.

The caregivers’ “work deserves fairness. Work deserves dignity. Work deserves respect,” Shuler declared. “I bring a very simple message: Caregiving is work.”

The catch, other speakers said, is that it’s often not been treated that way. Caregivers, one noted, have been deliberately written out of workers’ rights legislation for decades. And often it’s derided as “women’s work” subject to low pay, few benefits, and job discrimination.

“Failure to pass” the whole Build Back Better bill “was a significant setback for millions of workers,” said Henry. “That hasn’t stopped the workers from fighting to be respected, protected, and paid—and we’ll need a million more of them by 2028” as the U.S. population ages.

SEIU represents tens of thousands of caregivers, while others are stuck in poorly-paid jobs, she added. “Many are Black and brown” and in the pandemic “many had to leave a paid job to care for a loved one” of their own.

That must end, said speakers at the sun-splashed rally, which drew just under 100 people, many of them union members. “Care is the center of our families, our communities, and our economy” declared a longtime advocate for women workers and for paid family and medical leave, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

The workers and their allies drew a commitment to action on the issue from two key lawmakers, Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash. Together, their panels provide funding for many federal social programs.

“We’re going to be there to fight for your agenda, your priorities,” Wyden told the crowd. He listed them as funding child care, paid family and medical leave and funds to let aging and ailing seniors receive care at home, rather than be shunted into institutions.

Wyden also rebutted Republican and corporate critics who question the cost of expanding care. “People say ‘Can we afford it?’ I say ‘Can we not afford it?’” to make caregiving dignified, affordable, and “economically beneficial.”

“Every one of these is an urgent economic priority,” added Murray—a “mom, grandma and former preschool teacher…Moms and Dads will have to leave their jobs if they don’t have paid family leave” and ways to care for their kids. “Parents get it. CEOs get it. We need to make sure Congress gets it.”

“We have to transform these low-wage poverty-level jobs into living-wage jobs for Latina, Black and white” caregivers, Henry concluded.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.