By Jack Cumming

When I was young labor strikes were common, and the newspapers were filled with stories of strife and difficult negotiations. The perception was that the union leaders wanted employers to give more and the employers put profit before grace to give their workers less. Are unions a good thing? Would unions benefit senior living workers?

Unions in Senior Living

Senior living has been little impacted by unions – at least as we generally think of direct union activity. There are some larger nursing homes that have been organized. But senior living has relatively few locations at which the workers are represented by unions. Is this good? Are the workers better off looking to their employers, or would an external organization, a labor union, give them better working conditions and more recognition?

This is a tough question, and I’m not prepared to take sides. But two recent stories – one concerning proposed benefits for care workers and the other about an Amazon center in Alabama – should be examined for what they portend for the senior living industry. Our nation’s President is not neutral on the issues of employment, employers, and employees.

On February 28, 2021, President Biden released a video declaring: “I’ve long said America wasn’t built by Wall Street, it was built by the middle class, and unions built the middle class. Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protection from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and brown workers.”

Social Legislation as a Labor Tool

We don’t have as many strikes today as we did fifty or more years ago in my youth. During that fifty years, one of the fastest-growing union organizations has been the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Their success comes as much from their seizing on social mobility as a cause as it has from collective bargaining. The SEIU has come a long way from its origins in 1921 when it concentrated on building service workers, janitors, elevator operators, and window washers. It gained success as its social vision drew it increasingly into politics where it was able to mobilize its members as a political force.

More recently, in November 2009, just a little over a decade ago, the SEIU won the right to represent home healthcare workers in Fresno, California. That has brought it into an awareness of the challenge of unpaid and low-paid caregivers. It also elevated the union as a political force.

The union was an important voice recently in the crafting of California’s Master Plan for Aging. It’s no surprise that Goal Four of that Plan, captions “Caregiving That Works,” targets “one million high-quality caregiving jobs.” California has roughly 20 million jobs altogether, so 1 million union-represented caregivers equate to 5% of the workforce. That’s a political force that cannot be ignored.

In a recent article, Howard Gleckman, a clear-thinking commentator on aging issues, noted the role attributed to the SEIU in including $400 billion in President Biden’s infrastructure proposal for people receiving long-term services and supports (LTSS). The SEIU is now a national political force impacting senior living.

The Example of Amazon

The other story comes from the widely publicized effort by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union to win the right to represent the employees at an Amazon center in Alabama. Amazon prevailed. The vote wasn’t even close. 1,798 employees voted against unionizing, compared to 738 in favor. Senior living employers would do well to take note of how employees explain their vote. There have been many reports telling those stories.

The long and the short of it was that the employees overwhelmingly saw Amazon as a good employer. The employees are loyal to their employer. Some sources, notably NBC and The Guardian, reported union sources railing against Amazon as having used strongarm tactics to instill fear in workers. But, another source, The New York Times, interviewed workers. Typical is an ex-employee, favorable to unionization, who said: “I give them credit. They start you out and you get insurance right away.”

Many workers seemed to fear that Amazon would be less generous if confronted by a hostile union in negotiations. The Times quotes Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos as spurred by the election to try to do better by the company’s employees. “It’s clear to me,” the Times quotes him, “that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success.”

Workers and Employers Are Partners in Business

That’s good advice for any business, and it’s particularly good advice for senior living which is inherently a people business. If you treat employees well, you likely treat customers well also, and vice versa. To thrive in senior living it’s important to have the loyalty and support of families, residents, employees, suppliers, and the wider community. That takes a generous heart and great wisdom. People first is the recipe for success. Here’s a link to the New York Times story which may be behind a paywall. Howard Gleckman’s article can be accessed by clicking here.

Click here to read comments and join the conversation about this article.