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Caretakers Take Charge

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.

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.

 

Even as it located workers and cultivated their clients, the union also had to prevail upon government to acknowledge its responsibility as an employer. The task shouldn’t have been so arduous, since home- care programs save both state and county governments millions of dollars by providing an alternative to more costly nursing-home care. But it wasn’t until the early ’90s that the state enacted legislation authorizing counties to set up agencies that could act as an employer. And it wasn’t until September of 1997 that L.A. County, by a unanimous vote of the supervisors, established a 15-member public authority — dominated by consumer activists — to supervise training, run a registry, and bargain collectively with the workers.

All of this required some adept political finagling, and in late 1995, SEIU sent the campaign a first-class political finagler. Just 30 years old, David Rolf arrived in Los Angeles from Georgia, where he had helped SEIU win some notable political victories. He quickly boosted the fledgling union’s credibility by having the local take a lead role on Proposition 210, the 1996 initiative that raised the minimum wage (for which the local collected more signatures than any other group). Over the next couple of years, at Rolf’s prodding, SEIU also provided key assistance to the Assembly campaigns of Carl Washington (which helped ingratiate the local to Supervisor Yvonne Burke, Washington’s longtime boss) and Gil Cedillo (which helped ingratiate the local to Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, Cedillo’s childhood friend). Burke’s support would prove to be one of the keys to the supervisors’ decision to establish the public authority; Villaraigosa’s support will likely prove key to the union’s ability to win state-budget language giving its members a raise.

At the same time, Rolf ran a most unusual organizing campaign among the workers. "It was in form as much a political campaign as an organizing drive," he says. "It involved precinct walking and canvassing, phone banks and mail." Between March and November of last year, organizers knocked on the doors of 30,000 workers across the county; 10,600 of those workers signed cards joining the local and petitioning the agency to hold an election. Remarkably, considering that these were all minimum-wage workers, fully half the petitioners agreed to a voluntary assessment on their wages to support the union’s political-action program — but then, it was the union’s political clout that had brought them this far. "We will be nothing if not a political local," Rolf says.

And a far-flung one. Just locating the members was an achievement: Home-care workers tend to be renters, not homeowners, and change residences a good deal more frequently than most Angelenos. The union employed 22 of its own full-time organizers during its drive last year, and at one point borrowed 75 more from other local unions, and from SEIU campaigns around the country.

Once negotiations begin between the union and the public authority, there should be fairly swift agreement on establishing a registry and training programs. Raising the pay scale over the minimum wage, and establishing health benefits for the 40,000 workers estimated to be without them, however, requires specific appropriations in the state budget — hence, the close relations the union has cultivated with Villaraigosa and Governor Gray Davis. Workers rightly contend that such expenditures still constitute a bargain for both state and county governments. "Just by doing our jobs," says Daniels, "by keeping our patients out of nursing homes, we save the county a whole lot of money."

In 1995, John Sweeney took the helm of the AFL-CIO on the promise to reverse labor’s decadeslong decline. He quickly redirected one-third of the Federation’s own resources to organizing, and urged the member affiliates to do likewise. But the shift to a culture of organizing has not been easy. Officials estimate that "no more than 10" of the AFL-CIO’s 72 member unions have developed real organizing programs.

The foremost of these is the SEIU, Sweeney’s old international, which under the leadership of Andy Stern — the union’s former organizing director, who won the presidency after Sweeney decamped for the Federation — has shifted nearly half its resources into organizing. Of the 475,000 workers that American unions organized last year, 64,000 joined the Service Employees. This year, including Thursday’s victory with the home-care workers — the largest yet of the Sweeney era — SEIU expects to organize 150,000 more.

These are the most heartening numbers American labor has seen in many years — and they are woefully insufficient. After factoring in plant closings and downsizings, the net increase in union members last year shrinks to 100,000. And with the U.S. work force increasing by 2 million new workers each year, the rate of workers who belong to unions declined last year from 14.1 percent to 13.9.

 

Which leaves unions scrambling not just to increase their organizing resources, but to find new ways to enhance their ability to organize. Both the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees and the Communications Workers have made concessions to employers at the bargaining table in return for the right to organize those employers’ new facilities or acquisitions. And support for organizing drives has become labor’s new litmus test for elected officials: Just boasting a progressive voting record is no longer enough. Union officers can rattle off which congressmen and senators helped them on which campaigns, and which ones declined to. "We support them in their elections," says SEIU’s Stern. "They should support us in ours."

The campaign to unionize the home-care workers in L.A. was from its inception as reliant on amassing political clout as it was on actually organizing workers; given its dependence on both state and county government, it could not have been otherwise. In today’s Los Angeles, however, it isn’t only public-sector union campaigns that are translating political moxie into organizing gains. In Hollywood, the city’s main Hotel and Restaurant local has organized its first new hotel in 14 years in part because the hotel’s new owner needs the approval of the local City Council member (the union-friendly Jackie Goldberg) to build a mega-development. At LAX, an organizing campaign of food servers and security screeners has been helped both by the City Council’s determination to cover those workers under the living-wage ordinance, and by the mayor’s determination to win allies in his bid to expand the airport.

But no one has done politics more adeptly than Rolf. It was the Election Day prowess of SEIU that ensured it even had an employer to bargain with, and its reputation as a political dynamo that ensures the consideration of the home-care workers’ claim on the pending state budget.

Even a small raise would be a matter of great moment to minimum-wage workers — and a small raise to 75,000 such workers would be a matter of great moment to Los Angeles, the nation’s capital of low-wage work. It has certainly been some time coming. "It looks like we’ll see the sun come up," says Verdia Daniels. "But it’s been a long, hard journey."


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