We should stand with caseworkers

May 3, 2011

TO BE honest, I was shocked and a bit insulted to read David Bliven's views in his Readers' View titled "Caseworkers aren't our allies."

David compares child welfare workers to the police, and somehow from the left, manages to join the ruling class ideological attack on state public-sector workers--that they are lazy, are held to low standards, and all on the taxpayer dollar. Unfortunately, David takes the focus of the article he's criticizing away from an indictment of the capitalist system and places it back onto the individual caseworkers.

Capitalism, a system where a small minority ruling class amasses exorbitant wealth through the immiseration of the mass of population, is inherently unstable. The ruling class therefore needs an enormous apparatus to protect the status quo on its behalf. Different sections of the state do this in different ways and perform different functions within capitalism.

The police protect the status quo through direct and daily repression of the working class. So when police unions fight for better conditions, it's to more easily and effectively repress us.

Caseworkers protect the status quo for capital in a contradictory way. They play a part in harassment and repression of working class families. And, it should be said, socialists do not support the state intervening in our personal lives.

But in a system that makes life literally unlivable for millions of families, preserving the status quo also means keeping the working class able to work, or at least not disrupting the system's ability to function for profit. The system therefore also has in interest in preserving the family as a social institution.

So caseworkers don't just break up families. They also work to hook up families with desperately needed services to help alleviate the worst pains of the system. Caseworkers may hook families up with family or individual counseling, parenting classes, substance abuse treatment, domestic violence intervention, home care, support for pregnant and parenting teens and other services. As Alana Smith pointed out in her response ("Caseworkers don't deserve the blame"), this is why caseworkers sign up for the job--to help people.

David is right when he says that caseworkers play a role in "supporting the system." But he's wrong to say that they are therefore "one step away from cops." If this was true, then teachers, social workers and mental health workers, who are mandated to report indications of child abuse or neglect, would be only one step away from cops.

Teachers, social workers and mental health workers have a similarly contradictory position within the capitalist state. As Alana pointed out in her response, teachers help to discipline and provide the necessary level of education for the next generation to be effective workers for capital.

WHEN TALKING about social class, whether or not you are in the working class or with the police cannot be defined by whether you "support the system." After all, what does this really mean? Ideologically, the majority will "support the system" right up until the moment before revolution. Economically, even us socialists "support the system" every day we go to work and our bosses exploit our labor.

The truth of the matter is that our labor supports this system day in and day out. And it's only because of this that we as workers have the power to grind this system to a halt and lay the groundwork for an alternative. It is this relationship to the ruling class through our labor that determines our class, our consciousness and our ability to fight exploitation and oppression.

Austerity means worse situations for working-class children and families. It means there are fewer services available to refer them to as programs get cut. And it means that caseworkers have even greater caseloads, and less time and resources to help. In other words, when exploitation of the working class increases, exploitation of caseworkers increases as well. So unlike police unions, when caseworkers organize for better conditions, they are organizing to better be able to help the most vulnerable in society.

I've worked in various settings for the past six years to provide supportive services to people with some combination of mental illness, drug addiction and/or HIV. As you might imagine, I've had to work closely with many caseworkers. And actually, many of my coworkers over the years have either left to become caseworkers with New York's Administration for Children's Services (ACS), or have come to my field from casework.

I stayed in touch with one the most talented coworkers of mine when she was placed (after completing her Masters in Social Work and scoring well on the state exam) in the only open job at the time as an ACS caseworker. She promptly took the position, looking forward to the pay raise, better health care and union protection (months before, I had been meeting with organizers from SEIU about potentially organizing a union because we were making under $10 an hour after years on site, had shit for health care, and were treated like children by our boss).

She was also excited by the idea of "helping kids," but soon complained of exhaustion under the pressure of an insane caseload, understaffing and being put in unsafe situations without support. She described a general feeling of depression, hopelessness and helplessness about the options available for families in dire situations.

I agree with Alana that these types of experiences can leave people open to radical politics and lead them to take action against the system.

When caseworkers do organize, it's crucial that socialists stand shoulder to shoulder with them on three fronts: We stand with them for better working conditions so they can better help people. We stand with them against attempts by the ruling class media to slander state workers. And we stand with caseworkers for progressive reform to the child welfare system.
Kyle Brown, New York City

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