In the 121 years since Labor Day became a national holiday, millions have taken it as a day of rest. For labor leaders, though, it’s a day about work: working the politicians, working the issues of pay and benefits in a country where wages for many of those millions have hit the skids. Laphonza Butler is one of a new generation of labor leaders. She’s provisional president of Service Employees International Union Local 2015, a recently formed statewide local that combines home-care and nursing home workers. It now represents 315,000 California long-term care workers. Caregiver ranks are growing as more older Americans need strangers’ help, and earlier this summer, a federal appeals court restored overtime and minimum wage protections to about 2 million of them, including Butler’s members. That, she says, is a good step, but a long way from the finish line.
As more people need in-home healthcare, are your members’ prospects changing?
Absolutely. More policymakers and opinion leaders are in these situations themselves. I can’t tell you the number of legislators I’ve spoken to who are facing this challenge. When Hillary Clinton was in Los Angeles and talked to home-care workers, she talked about how her own mom the last 10 years of her life couldn’t live by herself. Seeing this crisis firsthand is helping to shape the awareness of what caregivers actually do.
What is your background?
This work is a personal mission for me. My mom was my father’s caregiver. By the time my father died, when I was 16, he had had five heart attacks, a stroke, he had gotten angioplasty and received a heart transplant from an 18-year-old who died in a motorcycle accident. I saw the sacrifices my mom had to make to provide the care my dad needed. In Mississippi, there’s no compensation for providing family care. Her income came from the 11-to-7 shift at a nursing home, [from being] an assistant in a classroom for special-needs children, a number of jobs. The gift I have now is to work for men and women like my own mom.
My mother took care of my dying father too. Is it your position that she should have been paid for that?
No, the union is not in a position to say that every person providing care to our elderly or disabled should be compensated. When families make the choice to hire a caregiver, the state [benefits because] keeping that person at home and out of an institution saves taxpayer money. When that calculation is made, we believe those wages should be living wages.
A lot of caregivers [have to get] out of bed in the middle of the night when clients call and they’ve messed up their sheets and there’s nobody else to call. They get up and leave their families and go change those sheets. In a lot of instances, they don’t get paid for that time.
This profession requires great skill — that sometimes goes overlooked. We’re in an evolution of healthcare delivery; the SEIU’s vision is to include the home-care worker in the coordination of this. Imagine you’re a home-care worker and you spend eight hours a day with a patient with chronic illnesses — diabetes, obesity, hypertension. You know whether their eating habits have changed, whether they’re taking their medication, but you’re not allowed to have any conversations with that person’s doctor. You’re the one who takes them to the emergency room three times a month, but you are totally excluded from those conversations.
So if Mrs. Smith is not eating …
That’s Mrs. Smith’s protected patient information. You can [only] communicate those things to the family. [Instead] we need to make sure the [caregiver] can call in to a case manager if things are changing. I’ve been working on that since I landed in California, to catapult the professionalism of the healthcare worker, to increase wages and benefits in occupations relegated to poverty wages. I think we’re going to create a new model of care to keep people in their homes with qualified [in-home] healthcare professionals connected to health plans, to help drive down costs in our healthcare system.
Part of the appeal of this job is its flexible hours, and it attracts in particular women who may have practical ability but haven’t been able to get much education. Are you trying to get more professional training and standards for the job?
Absolutely. It was the consumers’ responsibility to train their home-care workers [to meet their needs], but the population of those folks is changing; you have a lot more people with dementia and Alzheimer’s who aren’t able to communicate those expectations. The union is in favor of creating training standards for this workforce.
Could those requirements push some workers out of the workforce?
I don’t think so. The union [decided] to create training and education centers for home-care workers. We offer basic classes and support. When I arrived six years ago, we had 4,000 people on the waiting list. I don’t think it pushes people out of the workforce; I think it gives them more confidence in the job they’re doing.
What effect have right-to-work court rulings had on your members and on the union?
We operate as if we are in a right-to-work environment. Every member of our union in California is a member because they chose to sign a card, to pay dues. We all should be concerned about the right-wing pushback on worker organizations, as they are one of the last mantles of power for regular working people. We believe that none of us can accomplish anything without the support and encouragement of others. The 40-hour workweek wasn’t just for mine workers, it was for everybody. The work we do isn’t just for those in our union but for creating a better living standard for all caregivers. Fifteen dollars an hour full time is still only $31,000 a year. Our campaign is $15 and a union. Having one and not the other doesn’t change the power dynamic in our country.
What accounts for the decline nationally in union membership?
Pushback by those who want it all. You see the increase of worker productivity and the stagnation of wages. Overlay on that the decline of the labor movement. It changed when having more and more and more defined the power elite.
The “gig” economy, where you go from job to job — what is the social compact in that work environment?
We have to figure out how to build the broadest possible movement on behalf of solving big problems. We have a climate crisis. The criminal justice system is broken. We have poverty. No longer are our problems bilateral, between one union and one factory. It’s going to take the collective voice to solve those problems.
The word “union” makes many people think of greed and corruption.
Unions [have to] change people’s perceptions of unions.
Is there a built-in paradox, that if wages and benefits improve, people may decide they don’t need a union?
If you see the union as an end, then yes. If you see it as a means to an end, I think you’d answer differently. I see the labor union as building collective power in service of our broader society — an organization that acts on behalf of communities, not [ just] an organization where people expect a wage increase in the next contract negotiation.
There are classic union movies like “Norma Rae” and “Matewan.” Do you have a favorite?
I haven’t seen those movies, to be honest; it’s not my generation. The movies that inspire me [are] like “The Great Debaters,” where you see Denzel Washington not only as an academic but as a farmworker organizer in the South.
It’s less about union movies for me than about movies that tell the stories of people coming together to make change.
This interview has been condensed and edited.