A contract for care workers that honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. | Opinion

King fought for economic justice, too. Getty Images.

As we celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an event from this past weekend made me think about how so many of us are continuing his fight every day here in Minnesota.

2020 made clear just how much work we need to do to address racism in our state, but it isn’t just the awful violence of police killings that makes Minnesota one of the worst states for racial disparities. It’s also the system that pays jobs done by Black women on average 62 cents for every dollar a white man makes. It’s the system that says that care jobs — which have been done by women (and often women of color) for our country’s whole history — aren’t “real jobs.” It’s the endless refrain from people in power that say they respect and appreciate our work, but then always find a reason to tell us to wait at the back of the line when we ask for gains that would actually show they value our work.  

One of the three caregiving jobs that I do is as a home care worker. There are tens of thousands of home care workers across Minnesota, who work to make sure seniors and people with disabilities are able to live independently in their own homes. Almost every person would prefer to live at home compared to being put into a nursing home, and it also is dramatically cheaper for the state. The pandemic has only made the reasons people want to remain at home, not in institutional care, even clearer. It can easily be a matter of life and death. Yet despite the importance of our work, and regular expressions of thanks for what we do from the politicians who set our pay, home care workers in Minnesota still earn a minimum wage of $13.25. 

But at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning, while we all groggily stared at our computer screens at the end of a marathon 18-hour bargaining session, my union reached a tentative agreement with the state of Minnesota to raise our minimum wage to $15.25, give us more paid time off and more holidays when we can get time-and-a-half pay if we work. It was an amazing moment, and despite us all being exhausted, and knowing we deserve much more, our bargaining team of home care workers and clients talked about how proud we all felt of the changes we were bringing to our long-undervalued line of work. 

I love that we reached this agreement less than 48 hours before the MLK holiday, because I believe our work is part of the everyday fight to keep King’s legacy alive. It isn’t just about dollars and cents, or getting extra hours of PTO, although those are of course very good things I am happy to win. I think in our ongoing fight to address racism and sexism, it can be easy to overlook fights like our contract, which set working conditions for thousands of Minnesotans. But these fights offer us a chance to chip away at a system that has undervalued Black workers, and especially Black women, throughout the history of our country. 

I often think about how much better things would be if I didn’t have to take on everything I have to now. I could not only be a better caregiver for my clients, but I could also have more time to be with my family, including two of my daughters who require caregivers in their day-to-day life. I see every day — both as a worker and a client — what our historical undervaluing of care work means for families. It’s hard not to get frustrated when you hear about rich corporations getting even richer while care workers are stuck making poverty wages. But it’s our job, as King showed, to not just be frustrated, but to raise our voices against injustice, organize and make change. 

I hope King would be proud of the progress made for working people here in Minnesota in our new tentative agreement. I’m glad that Gov. Tim Walz and his team negotiated in good faith with our union and reached an agreement that begins to truly respect our essential work — to take the words of praise we’ve been hearing for years from politicians, never more so than during this pandemic, and convert them into real progress in our lives and the lives of our clients. Now we need state legislators from both parties to do what is right and ratify and fund this contract, to make sure these gains get to home care workers, who live and work in every small community and corner of the state. 

We’ll hear a lot of nice words this MLK Day from politicians about how they want to continue King’s work. We hope they mean it. It means a lot more than nice words when working people organize like King did, and when elected officials — as Walz has in these contract negotiations — step up and take concrete actions to address the policies and systems that for generations have left Black Minnesotans behind. Raising wages and improving working conditions for the people who provide care for Minnesota’s seniors and people with disabilities won’t end our state’s racial injustice; far from it. But it sure will help. I’m proud I get to tell my kids — and someday, grandkids — that I played a part in making that happen.