Two Unions Vie for Home-Care Workforce

May 29, 2013

Two unions are competing to represent up to 7,000 home-care workers in Vermont.

The union drive follows the Legislature’s decision to grant collective bargaining rights for people who care for elderly and disabled Vermonters.

The contest is between two labor organizations that specialize in organizing public employees and health care workers. Officials say it will be the largest union election in state history. 

The first to file petitions with the state labor Relations Board was the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME.

AFSCME held a rally in Montpelier before submitting its petitions. Laura Reyes, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME International, the second highest officer in the union, gave a stump speech for organized labor. She recalled that her own experience as a home-care worker, led her to join AFSCME.

“And I was empowered. I was empowered by organizing. And that’s what it is about. It’s about Carol in St. Albans, Leona in Johnson, and Patrick right here, am I saying this right? Montpelier?” she said.

Despite Reyes’ unfamiliarity with Vermont’s capital, AFSCME sells itself as the local union. It’s represented public employees in the state since the 1950's, including police officers, city workers and mental health care providers.

“Most Vermonters don’t want a union from outside, say New York City, coming in that has no members here, to represent them,” said organizer Carolyn Klinglesmith.

She said AFSCME has a proven record of bargaining successfully for Vermonters. “Fighting for funding for public programs is what we do as a union because that’s the only workers that we represent. And we have experience with negotiating state contracts, public contracts, with all the other public employees,” she said.

Competing against AFSCME is the Service Employees International Union. Matt McDonald, SEIU’s Vermont director, said the union has deep experience representing home and health care workers.

“And there’s no question that SEIU is the most qualified and the most experienced union anywhere in the country at representing workers like these 6 or 7,000 in Vermont who are about to make a very important decision about one, whether to form a union, and two, which union is the best fit for them,” he said.

McDonald said a union will allow the home-care workers an opportunity to improve wages and working conditions.

“Their wage rates have stayed very, very flat, have not kept up with the rate of inflation, because there hasn’t been anybody advocating on their behalf and saying we need to do something to help these workers stay in the workforce,” he said.

McDonald said the next step is for the labor board to issue rules for how the election will be run. The election will likely be held sometime this fall.