Union to Oregon Foster Parents: You’re Next!

By Paul Guppy

It starts with a phone call. “Can you take a child this weekend?” “Do you have space for a little girl?” “We have two boys who need a home.” These are the kinds of calls foster parents receive, often with little notice.

Then they arrive. Teen girls, who are polite but slightly defensive. Boys who like to roughhouse, but need boundaries. Small girls who always stay close to you, but seldom smile.

They arrive with everything they own in a box, or a backpack, or a couple of suitcases. They have all the basics — clothes, toiletries, prescriptions, school books, maybe an iPod. Then there are the special items, a favorite toy, a treasured blanket, a stuffed animal, a scrapbook, an envelope of photos. But whatever they have, all their possessions have one thing in common — they’re portable.

These are foster kids. They are funny, smart, troubled, creative, helpful, defiant, moody, quiet, loud, generous, selfish, talkative, introspective. They are adaptable, resilient and inwardly fragile. What they want most is a place to belong.

Some are in foster care temporarily, until conditions at home allow them to return to their parents. Some are legal orphans, available for adoption, and quietly hoping to someday find a “forever family” (I’ve had kids ask me, “Can you be my daddy?”). Being a foster parent means caring for children in need, and embracing all the joys and problems that come with them.

As if helping kids weren’t hard enough, Oregon foster parents may one day be forced to join the powerful public-sector unions. A bill in Washington State already has been introduced to treat foster parents like state employees. The bill, HB 3145, doesn’t specifically mention unions (the title reads, “Implementing a tiered classification system for foster parent licensing”), but the policy direction is clear: Push foster parents into mandatory collective bargaining. The idea comes from a local division of the AFL-CIO.

Nationwide, union membership is at historic lows. Today 92% of workers in the private sector do not belong to a union. The one area where union influence is growing is the public sector. The reason is simple. Government cannot be put out of business, so there are no market forces to limit union demands. When public payroll and benefits rise, elected officials just pass the cost on to taxpayers.

Requiring more people to join means big money for unions. Naturally, labor leaders press to expand the definition of “government worker” as far as possible. Each expansion contributes to the growth and political clout of the union. In Oregon, a bill to unionize home health care workers passed last year. A similar bill to unionize day care workers in Washington State now sends roughly $3 million a year into union bank accounts.

Foster parents are not state workers. They are caring people who welcome needy children into their home. Most will tell you the support payments they receive barely cover the cost of supporting the child. Believe me, nobody becomes a foster parent to get rich.

Being a foster parent is not a job, it is providing a home for kids who have no place else to go. It involves all the blessings and challenges of raising kids, plus being sensitive to the unique, often traumatic, past experiences of foster children, plus all the headaches and red tape of dealing with the state. It wouldn’t take much to push many foster parents to the tipping point, when they decide to drop out altogether.

Being forced into a union would certainly make it harder to recruit new foster families. Can you imagine this appeal from an overburdened state social worker, “Would you like to open your home to a child in need, and by the way you’d have to join a union.” The foster care system is short on homes already. Unionizing foster parents is a sure way to have even fewer of them in the future.

Given the very real needs of children, lawmakers should be considering ways to encourage more families to become foster parents, instead of passing bills that expand the power and influence of labor organizations.

Paul Guppy is Vice President for Research at Washington Policy Center and a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank. He and his wife Diana are certified foster parents. Washington Policy Center is a non-profit, non-partisan public policy research organization based in Seattle.