At a gathering I attended in the remote mountains of eastern Washington state this week — a breathtakingly beautiful region of the country — people were discussing actions they could take to promote a “Fair Share for Health Care” law. Someone had a wonderful idea: a job fair in the Wal-Mart parking lot, urging Wal-Mart workers to quit and become unionized home health care workers instead. If more unions representing health care workers did this, everyone would benefit. The former Wal-Mart workers would end up with better benefits, the unions would gain more members, and Wal-Mart would finally face a problem that could inspire change: a workforce with better options. When workers have no exit strategy, a company has no reason to improve their conditions; if they start leaving in large numbers for better jobs, that’s another story. (Given the nursing shortage, nurses’ unions and nursing schools should be doing the same thing.)
The public would win, too, because home health care workers are badly needed. A report released this week by the Caregiving Project for Older Americans warns of a coming “caregiver crisis” ; as baby boomers age, the nation is expected to face a “severe and worsening” shortage of professional caregivers to look after them ( and because of demographics, the pool of family members able to provide care will also shrink). Japan, Austria and Germany have all adapted to their aging populations by adopting universal long-term care systems; the United States, by contrast, has no system in place, no plan to provide care that most families can afford, and not enough workers. Baby boomers should use their numbers and political savvy to advocate for solutions to this problem — before they get too old and sick for political activism. And the labor movement should take notice of this situation’s potential; a worker shortage always provides opportunities for greater justice.