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The Trump Administration Is Attacking Women of Color and Unions (Again)

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s damaging decision in Janus v. AFSCME and a Supreme Court vacancy announcement that will likely have even more dire consequences for unions if Judge Brett Kavanaugh fills it, you might have missed the latest quiet-but-brutal strike against organized labor from the Trump Administration. But since the folks running the executive branch these days—and the moneyed corporate interests they pal around with—won’t be satisfied until unions are a thing of the past, they didn’t wait more than a few weeks post-Janus to launch a new attack: a proposed rule that will bar “independent provider” home care workers who are paid by the Medicaid program from choosing to pay their union dues through deductions from their paychecks, as hundreds of thousands are doing now.

I suspect it won’t surprise you to learn that this rule—if it goes into effect—will overwhelmingly hurt women, especially women of color. Women make up about 90 percent of home care workers (also known as home health aides or personal care aides), who assist older adults and people of all ages with disabilities with bathing, toileting, medication management, and other vitally important functions that allow them to live independently at home. Women of color make up the largest and fastest-growing segment of the workforce in this field, which will add tremendous numbers of jobs to our economy in the coming years as our population continues to age. (Medicaid, in particular, is a major job creator for women, especially women of color, working in home care.) But women of color in home care jobs are also more likely to live in poverty and rely on public assistance than home care workers who are men or white women, and the low wages and lack of benefits typical of the industry overall makes it especially critical that home care workers be able to come together to demand better conditions.

Indeed, across industries, unions are one of the very best mechanisms to ensure that women are paid fair wages and have decent working conditions. A recent survey from the National Employment Law Project confirms that home care workers who are in unions are paid more, and are far more likely to have access to health insurance and paid time off, than their non-union counterparts.

Given these benefits, it’s no surprise that home care workers make the decision to pay union dues, to enable the union to effectively bargain for these benefits on their behalf. Yet underlying the Trump Administration’s proposed bar on dues collection through paycheck deductions for certain home care providers is the outrageous suggestion—advanced by a number of right-wing organizations and pundits—that a home care worker’s voluntary payment from her wages to a union for the benefits it confers is somehow “dues skimming” from the Medicaid program, and that “unsophisticated” home care workers are being duped into contributing to the cost of union membership.

This argument, in addition to being untrue, relies on offensive stereotypes of both women and people of color as not intelligent or capable of making informed choices, unable to handle finances, and easily tricked or swayed and thus in need of a patronizing protector. It is nothing less than racist and sexist to suggest that home care workers wouldn’t pay union dues if they knew better—and it is downright laughable to hear calls to protect Medicaid from the very same conservatives who for years have been trying to render the program obsolete through funding cuts. Melody Barnes, a union home care worker from Chicago, says it best:

These attacks are more than condescending lies — they’re a slap in the face to our years of organizing led primarily by women of color. Just to set the record straight: I choose to pay my union dues out of my own paycheck. . . . I am “sophisticated” enough to decide to do whatever I want with the money I earn — whether it be donating to charity or supporting organizations that want to create more sustainable jobs and ensure access to affordable healthcare.

Here’s the reality: wages paid by the Medicaid program to a home care worker do not belong to Medicaid—they belong to the worker, who can spend them as she sees fit, just like anyone else gets to make choices about spending their paycheck. Home care workers who have their union dues payment deducted automatically are the same as other people who have their union dues deducted from their wages, including other public employees like teachers, police officers and firefighters, whose dues also come from wages paid by the state. With its latest proposal, the Administration is simply trying to make it more difficult for home care workers to do what they want to do—pay their union dues—and assuming that the more obstacles they erect to union membership, the more members unions will lose.

These attacks don’t just hurt individual home care workers and the unions that represent them, but also the millions of seniors and people with disabilities who rely on home care workers every day to live independent and fulfilled lives (most of whom, by the way, are also women). Decent wages and benefits for home care workers—often secured through union membership—reduce turnover, improving continuity of care for the people home care workers serve. It is incumbent upon all of us to join with home care workers in their fight for union representation and better working conditions, and to defend against corporate-funded efforts to undermine the rights of working people and the institutions that help them build collective power.

It's time for change, and we must act now. Time's up.