I am a home care worker. I am a mother. I am Black. I am a labor leader.
What image comes to mind when you think of a labor leader? Do you think of a woman of color? Labor is about more than men working in factories or industrial fields. It’s about immigrants who toil on farms to provide food for America’s families. It’s about janitors and security officers who keep public buildings clean and safe. And it’s about millions of women of color like me who do hard, essential work in homes across the country.
Hillary Clinton is making an historic run for president. The women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement have sparked national conversations about civil rights and police brutality. Women who work in fast food, child care and home care are calling for $15 an hour and a union. Women workers are on the front lines and we are the voice of the next era of labor organizing, calling for a system that works for all families and gives all workers a voice. Labor is a women’s issue.
Women now make up 47% of America’s workforce. Our activism is reflected in our growing membership in labor unions, which has increased exponentially over the last three decades. Women are now projected to be the majority of union members by 2025, according to a study by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research. However, working women—especially women of color—still make up the majority of underpaid and undervalued workers.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in home care work. Tens of millions of seniors depend on care from women workers who are paid so little that nearly half of us depend on public assistance just to get by. Home care workers provide essential services to seniors and people with disabilities—such as bathing, toileting, dressing, medication reminders, and preparing meals for older Americans and people with disabilities, helping them to live with dignity and independence in their own home. According to the Department of Labor, 90% of workers in the field are women and nearly half are women of color.
Despite working in one of the country’s fastest growing occupations, our wages are not enough to cover the basics: food, clothing, and rent for our families. I make minimum wage – $8.50 an hour in my home state of Michigan – and a few months ago, my family almost lost our home. I had to take a second job driving a delivery truck for an auto parts supplier. Mothers and grandmothers across the country can relate to my story – I will do whatever I can to keep my family fed and safe.
I have learned that “whatever I can” includes fighting for a union. It includes joining with other home care workers – across Michigan and across the country – to win a voice on the job and make home care jobs good jobs. It includes voting and making sure others in my community vote.
Home care work is done mostly by women like me, who have long been left out of the economic gains made by unions, or even the conversation about what matters. And so we are building our own movement. We are intentionally making space for home care workers to come together to say what matters in unison. We matter, and we are mobilizing in our communities to inspire women to organize. And we are mobilizing America’s 64 million workers who are paid less than $15 an hour in order to stand together with us.
We are making our voices heard and we refuse to be silent. Because together, we are unstoppable. In August, home care workers in Washington State won a $16 minimum wage. In California, more than 440,000 health care workers will see their pay increase over time to $15 an hour by 2022. Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the Home Care Final Rule, extending overtime protections to almost 2 million home care workers. And last summer, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton sat down with SEIU and not-yet-union home care workers and consumers to hear our stories. I know she heard us loud and clear because her ‘Caring Economy’ plan prioritizes a strong home care system, with supports for home care workers.
The labor movement has changed; there are new voices on the forefront, leading the way. So when you think of the workers who keep our country running, think of the home care and child care workers who take care of our most vulnerable family members. Think of airport workers who keep American business moving. Think of Black and Latina women. Think of me. I am a labor leader.
Henrietta Ivey is a home healthcare worker from Detroit.