In the labor movement, Women’s History Month is a time to celebrate the achievements of working women and to recommit ourselves to greater solidarity with our sisters. That solidarity has rarely been more necessary than it is this March, because we are in the midst of an unrelenting, nationwide assault on women.
Last month, for example, only men were permitted to testify before a congressional committee about birth control coverage. Amazingly, women were excluded from testifying about the most basic right to control their own bodies. This came on the heels of renewed attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of reproductive health services in the country.
Not even the venerable Girl Scouts of America has escaped the attacks. Recently, Republican Indiana State Sen. Bob Morris refused to sign a declaration in honor of the Girl Scouts’ 100th anniversary because of what he termed the organization’s “radical priorities.”
In their most recent televised debate, the Republican presidential candidates condemned President Barack Obama’s health care plan for its requirement that religiously affiliated employers–except for churches–provide insurance coverage for contraception as part of employees’ preventive health care services.
This opposition to contraception is an attempt by right-wing Republicans to turn back the clock on women as well as to dismantle, piece by piece, the Affordable Care Act and, with it, health care for tens of millions. Though these assaults target women, their ultimate aim is to dismantle essential rights and services won over decades of struggles.
Throughout history, women and men have organized themselves to achieve a measure of justice. Women’s equality and self-determination are closely tied to their ability to support themselves and contribute to the well-being of their families. Unions have helped serve that end.
Women, disproportionately represented in the caring professions, today represent the majority of our nation’s public sector workers. It is these workers–teachers, librarians and nurses and other health care workers–who have seen their jobs slashed as states address their budget shortfalls by cutting public jobs and services. And while workers lose services and their homes and livelihoods, those responsible for the economic train wreck and subsequent deficits enjoy record profits and collect obscene bonuses.
Here in New York, rising health care costs, coupled with declining tax revenues and federal aid, threaten the compensation of our most vulnerable members: homecare workers. Specifically, the state plans to move all home attendant cases from city authority to managed care organizations by the end of the year.
Because the change includes a different funding formula, it is unclear what this may mean for our members’ hourly rate and health coverage. The overwhelming majority of these members are immigrant women of color, many of who are their families’ sole breadwinner.
My mother was an 1199 homecare worker. I can attest to these workers’ unselfish devotion to their clients, but with that comes sore feet, long hours and low pay.
“I’m extremely concerned about these changes,” said Barbara Johnson, an 1199SEIU home health aide who lives in Brooklyn. “I’m also concerned about my client. We’ve been together two years now and we’ve grown close. She’s from Iran and she doesn’t speak much English, but I’m learning a little Farsi and we have a beautiful relationship. Why should she and I suffer because of what rich people on Wall Street did to the economy?”
This Women’s History Month, we should honor Johnson, her co-workers and others who care for those unable to care for themselves by helping to ensure that these working women are provided wages and benefits commensurate with the important services they provide. Regardless of gender, an injury to one is an injury to all.