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Caretakers Take Charge 

75,000 workers (in 75,000 work sites!) form a union

Wednesday, Feb 24 1999
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

The last time an American union organized at least 75,000 workers in a single local campaign, it was the spring of 1941. The workers were the employees at Ford’s River Rouge plant just outside Detroit — the nation’s largest factory, employing more people in one place than any other American work site before or since. The United Auto Workers’ campaign for the Rouge had begun in the winter of 1937, when some of their brash young leaders, including future UAW president Walter Reuther, attempted to distribute pro-union literature on an overpass near the factory and were beaten and bloodied by a collection of ex-cons that Ford kept on hand for just such occasions. Four years later, however, not even all of Henry Ford’s goons could keep the workers of the Rouge from flooding out of the plant gates one April afternoon — and out they stayed until Ford recognized their union.

It’s taken 59 years, but this Thursday afternoon, after a count of ballots at the Westin Bonaventure, another American union will win the right to represent a local of more than 75,000 workers. For a movement striving desperately to turn around four decades of declining membership, the importance of a victory of this magnitude can hardly be overstated.

Nor can the difficulty of this victory. There were no goon squads this time around, but the organizers faced a range of challenges that at times made a classic campaign like Ford seem simple.

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Two challenges loomed over all the rest. The first was that these 75,000 workers weren’t clustered in a single work site. They were, in fact, spread out over 75,000 work sites — for they are home-care workers tending to aged and disabled clients across L.A. County. As if this weren’t challenge enough, there was the knotty question of the identity of their employer. For while the workers are hired by the individual clients, they are paid by the county, through a state program called In-Home Supportive Services, the bulk of whose funding comes from Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Thus, when Local 434B of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) first began to organize home-care workers in 1988, they ran up against a most peculiar stone wall: While the wages were paid by agencies of government, and set by those agencies at the level of the minimum wage, none of those agencies would own up to being the employer-of-record. "Rube Goldberg," says SEIU president Andy Stern, "would be proud of the California system."

Not the most auspicious conditions for organizing workers. Even when home-care providers knew each other, it was through their churches or social groups or families: They surely didn’t meet each other at work. "When the campaign started, I felt I was the only home- care worker out there," recalls Verdia Daniels, who has stuck with the drive for all its 12 years and today is president of 434B. "I didn’t want anyone to know about it."

Over the next 12 years, that sense of shame diminished — and their sense of power increased — as the home-care workers joined together. And made common cause with their patients.

The bond between the home-care worker and his or her client is hardly your normal employment relationship. "You don’t just go in to dust or run the vacuum cleaner," says Verdia Daniels. "You have patients who are bedridden, but whose insurance doesn’t allow hospital stays. Some of your job is giving them medication. Some of it is changing their diapers. Some patients have back injuries; you have to get them out of bed just the right way. You lift the patients, you do their therapy. For the minimum wage."

"But you don’t want to see these people in nursing homes — not after you’ve seen the nursing homes. You want to see them smile."

From its outset, in fact, the campaign to unionize the home-care workers has depended on the smiles of the patients: Only if the disability movement gave the campaign its blessing would public agencies offer collective-bargaining rights to the workers. There was a commonality of interest. "The wages have been so low, with the workers stranded in a position where they couldn’t organize, that there’s been a great deal of turnover," says Bert MacLeech, a 90-year-old disability activist who — quite fortunately, he adds — has had the same provider for the past 12 years.

For some time, though, there were "sharp differences within the disability movement," says MacLeech, over the issue of worker unionization; the fear was that a powerful union could erode some of the autonomy that the disabled had won. "There are still some pockets of unease," says MacLeech, "but the union has bent over backward by agreeing to a no-strike clause, and by stipulating that they cannot file grievances against the consumers." The right to hire and fire remains solely that of the client. Another union position that pleased consumers was an insistence on upgrading the training programs available to providers.

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