I hope you’ve hit the ground running in 2023 because this week’s episode in our podcast series on community power is as tough as it gets. It’s a conversation with Leigh Carroll, a union organiser, and Lynn Weidner, a member of the union.
Unions invoke strong reactions in people. Some are vehemently pro, others vehemently anti. It’s hard to find people with a more measured, less visceral response. Try, if you can, to hold back your gut reaction and consider Lynn’s story – it’s one that lays bare the sheer callousness of the society we’re creating and the role that unions can play in creating something better.
Lynn describes herself as a born caregiver. It’s what she wants to do with her life. In her early career, she worked in a state-run home in North Carolina but there were so few staff that it was impossible to find time to care. All they could do was get through the day’s tasks with little to no time to talk to the residents, understand their needs or just listen to their stories.
That’s no environment for a born caregiver and so Lynn chose to become a homecare worker – someone that works one-to-one with a client in their own home. However, at the time homecare workers did not get health insurance as part of their pay. Nor did they get paid leave, sick leave or overtime. To care, Lynn had to sacrifice all of those things.
The Perils of Caring
Those sacrifices had consequences. Homecare workers tend to work long hours and are isolated – you don’t have colleagues to socialise with during the day, there’s no break room to get away to. The pay is poor. Lynn’s wages only covered her rent; she relied on food banks. Soon, Lynn felt trapped, isolated and powerless. She became depressed and tried to commit suicide.
Thankfully, she was not successful.
At some point, Lynn’s mother got sick so she went to care for her. Her mother lived in Pennsylvania and it was there that she got to know the United Homecare Workers of Pennsylvania, the union that Leigh works for. As Lynn describes it, what she found was a group of people supporting each other, pulling each other up. Seeing that made her realise that she did not have to let things happen to her, that – through a union – she could make things change.
For Leigh, Lynn’s realisation is part of the beauty and promise of unions. They illustrate to ‘ordinary’ people that change is possible while also relying on the same people to make the change happen. This self-reliance is furthered by the fact that unions are funded by the dues paid by its members. Often initiatives that seek to build the power of communities rely on external funding. That work is good and important but it creates an external accountability that may subvert what a community wants and does. Not so with unions.
The Importance of Struggle
Leigh also sees beauty in the struggle of union work. Recruiting homecare workers to the union means asking people on poverty wages (as Leigh calls them) to pay dues from what little money they have. It’s a tough ask. But a union is only as powerful as the number of members it has so it’s a necessary ask, a necessary struggle. Indeed, according to Leigh, being aware of just how hard it is to recruit members, helps union leaders to use their power carefully so as not to waste it.
Using power is also difficult. Finding the courage to tell your CEO that it’s horrible he makes 500 times what you do, pointing out to your nonprofit employer that it’s immoral they enjoy tax exemption while paying poverty wages, standing on cold picket lines knowing that you won’t be able to pay the rent while on strike – it’s all challenging work. But, as Leigh says, the struggle helps to thicken the bonds between members in a way that nothing else can.
According to an article in NPR, at some point in their lives, 70% of older adults in the U.S. will require help with dressing, hygiene, moving around, managing finances, taking medications, cooking, housekeeping and other daily needs, usually for two to four years. Many of these people will not be able to rely on friends and family. They’ll need caregivers. And they’ll need caregivers that are able to care – partly as a result of fair wages, paid time off and access to health care. As Lynn says in the episode, you cannot care for someone from a place of emptiness (Ratio/Apple).
Therein lies a paradox in the work of the United Homecare Workers of Pennsylvania. While it’s building and using the power of its members to improve their lot, it’s also forcing us to think about what kind of society we want to live in. Do we want one in which caring is only possible at great personal sacrifice – a sacrifice that almost cost Lynn her life – or one in which the profession of caring is valued and respected? Given the importance of the question, perhaps it’s time to step back from pro or anti positions and acknowledge that organised working people – which is what unions are, a type of community power — are holding a mirror up to society and asking is this really the best we can do?
Pritpal S Tamber
PS: The work of the union took Lynn and Brandon, the person she cares for, all the way to the White House, as you’ll see in this tweet
Previous Episodes in the Series
- Martha Mackenzie (Episode 5; December 13): A conversation with Martha Mackenzie on community organising and repairing democracy (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
- Paul Speer (Episode 4; November 30): A conversation with Paul W. Speer on the role of relationships, conversations and mediating institutions in building community power (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
- Jennie Popay (Episode 3; November 15): A conversation with Jennie on the need to truly understand how communities with power can pursue social justice (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
- Jonathan Heller (Episode 2; November 1): A conversation with Jonathan, one of the most innovative practitioners in the journey to health equity (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
- Pritpal S Tamber (Episode 1; October 17): I talk to Michael Little, the host of the podcast, on what community power is and why it might be important (Ratio/Apple) – see the related post
The photograph behind the title is by Eva Bee / Ikon Images.