Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Disability Advocates: How much involvement in a political campaign is too much?

This is old news, but I think it is instructive to look back at the 2012 political campaign for Proposal 4, a ballot proposal to amend the Michigan Constitution primarily to assure continued union representation of organized Home Help Care workers by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). These workers are paid from Medicaid funds that seniors and people with disabilities can use to assist them with  personal care and household chores.

Both Proposal 4 and Proposal 2, another proposal to write collective bargaining rights into the  Michigan Constitution, were defeated. Following their defeat the Michigan lame-duck legislature passed a law that makes Michigan a "Right to Work" state, a devastating blow to labor unions. These controversial union issues became entangled with the Home Help program that almost everyone supports as a way to help seniors and people with disabilities stay in their own homes. The Home Help program has been around for more than 25 years and its continued existence was not threatened by either the passage or defeat of Proposal 4.

[If you want to read more about unions in Michigan, here is a pro-union article, "This is not Wisconsin. It's Worse.", from the American Prospect, 12/10/12, by Rich Yeselson. It covers Michigan labor history, the United Auto Workers, and how unions have in many respects been weakened by past successes.]

The support by seniors and disability advocates for Proposal 4 focused on part of the proposal that would have maintained the MIchigan Quality Community Care Council (MQCCC) under a new name, the Michigan Home Quality Care Council (MHQCC).  The MHQCC, an organization of advocates for seniors and people with disabilities with representation from the MIchigan Department of Community Health (MDCH), would have continued to represent the employers of Home Help workers, seniors and disabled people in the Home Help program, in bargaining with the workers through the SEIU. The MHQCC would also have continued to operate a registry of Home Help workers who had passed background checks and could receive training to improve their job skills. State funding from the MDCH for the MQCCC had been about $1.1 million per year until the legislature defunded the organization in October 2011. Since then it had received help in maintaining the registry from advocacy groups and the SEIU.

Senior and disability advocates were the face of the pro-Proposition 4 campaign. Most, if not all, of the advertising for it emphasized safety through the maintenance of the registry of home help workers. The advertising did not mention, however, that 75% of Home Help workers are family members or friends of the senior or disabled person, unlikely to use the registry, and not subject to background checks. Nor was there much mention of the more controversial union issue.

According to the 12/5/12 updates on the funding of the pro-Proposal 4 campaign called Citizens for Affordable Quality Home Care, funding came almost entirely from Home Care First, Inc. Home Care First got its money, $9,360,000, entirely from SEIU affiliates. The treasurer of Citizens for Affordable Quality Home Care was Dohn Hoyle, the Executive Director of the ARC Michigan. The treasurer of Home Care First, Inc., was Norm Delisle, the Executive Director of the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition.

Here is the campaign statement details for Citizens for Affordable Quality Home Care. This is the campaign statement details for Home Care First, Inc.

The financial stake in the pro-Proposal 4 campaign, was significant: the SEIU collected about $6 million per year in dues and fees from Home Help workers and the Michigan Home Quality Care Council hoped for renewed funding from the state that had been about $1.1 million annually.

One of the primary functions of advocates and their organizations should be to protect the rights of seniors and disabled people and the services they need to survive. To do this successfully, however, they need to maintain their independence and avoid conflicts of interest. In this convoluted campaign to amend the Michigan Constitution, advocates allied themselves with a labor union while simultaneously representing seniors and people with disabilities in collective bargaining with the union. The executive directors of two influential disability organizations were treasurers of the $9.3 million pro-Proposition 4 campaign and the committee that financed it with money entirely from union affilliates.

Seniors and people with disabilities and their advocates played a prominent role in promoting the uncontroversial aspects of the ballot proposal without acknowledging the more controversial union issues. There is a lot to be said for the quality and reliability of unionized workers who are adequately paid and trained and their role in improving the quality of care for people with disabilities, but, as far as I know, these arguments were not made in promoting the ballot proposal. Even if Proposal 4 had passed, the union and the advocacy organization representing seniors and people with disabilities were ultimately limited in their ability to improve the standing of Home Help workers. Although these workers were technically state employees, they received none of the benefits of most state employees and bargaining for better wages depended mostly on convincing legislators to provide adequate funding for the Home Help program.

Fortunately, the Home Help program is still intact and available for those who qualify for it. Beyond that, the chief beneficiaries of the ill-fated Proposal 4 campaign were the PR firms and the media outlets that ran advertising for it. Seniors and people with disabilities are probably no worse off, but advocates who were so intimately involved in this political campaign seemed unable to draw the line between themselves and outside interests and they probably undermined their credibility as advocates.

More on Proposition 4 from the DD News Blog

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