From the AFSCME Twitter.

November 14, 2019; Washington Post

This wouldn’t be the first time one interest group championing a particular strain of social justice has found itself in conflict with another. In this case, it is labor against disability rights advocates, and the dire consequences of labor’s shortsightedness in this situation are incalculable in human rights terms.

In Pennsylvania, the state’s Department of Human Services has announced the planned closure of the Polk State Center, an institution that houses people with developmental disabilities, including a variety of conditions like Down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy. The plan would close that institution in three years, replacing it with community placements, a measure that The Arc of Greater Pittsburgh heartily supports; pointing to volumes of research that indicates that people with disabilities are better served in community with support services delivered at home.

So, what’s the problem? That would be the 700 Polk Center employees who are resisting the shift in ways that pit them in direct opposition to other advocates.

AFSCME Council 13 posted a picture on Twitter of employees holding signs reading “Disabled Lives Matter” and “They don’t want to leave. Ask them!” Another union chapter, UFCW Local 1776 KS, posted an image of its members outside the State Capitol with their fists raised. It was a demonstration of solidarity with their fellow workers—but not with people with disabilities.

These conflictual dynamics are nothing new; there is a history of union opposition to the closing of secure residential institutions of all types since the ’70s, when the deinstitutional movement began to surface in response to the horrific and life-limiting conditions in which people with disabilities were being confined. Over time, that movement, while still attentive to the conditions of each institution, is also generally opposed to overinstitutionalization as a violation of human rights. And the Polk Center has played its own part in both elements of that legacy. Sarah Luterman writes in the Washington Post that:

Many residents were sent as children and were never even given a chance to try to function in normal society. It’s no wonder the Polk Center was rife with abuse and mistreatment: In the 1970s, children were kept in cages and tied to benches. In 1999, six doctors were arrested and charged in the deaths of three patients and the mistreatment of dozens of others, which included stitching up lacerations on 21 patients without anesthetic. In the past two years, officials launched investigations into claims of sexual assault and abuse.

Luterman asserts that these kinds of problems become rife in institutions where residents have limited capacity to communicate and staff have control over every aspect of their lives. Thus, she argues, these institutions are inherently dangerous, and research supports that the occurrence of abuse in them far outpaces that which takes place in community settings.

At this point, almost every mainstream disability right organization backs deinstitutionalization. But some pro-institutional groups remain, often aligned with parents, and unions have made common cause with them, arguing that deinstitutionalization is “a form of privatization that undermines labor and delivers fewer services to the detriment of patients.”

The picture is further muddied by the fact that home care work is among the lowest-paid professions in the country, so were one to want to stay in the field, it would likely be at the expense of reasonable wages, benefits, and hours. The turnover rate in those jobs is at an unworkable 46 percent nationally, with a third of those who take those jobs leaving within six months.

Clearly, there is a problem that must be confronted head-on, but instead the two progressive blocs just continue to fight one another.

“There’s a burgeoning opportunity for labor and disability rights advocates to support each other,” Luterman writes, “for new solidarity in different progressive circles, if only advocates reach for it.”—Ruth McCambridge