On February 25, 1999, 74,000 home healthcare workers in Los Angeles voted to join the Service Employees International Union. This moment demonstrates the growth of what is today the second largest union in the nation and its strategy to organize workers laboring in hard conditions without much contact with other home health workers.
Home health care work is a rapidly growing field and one where workers have a hard time. Like most care work, the pay is low, sometimes at or close to the minimum wage. Think about this–we pay the people we trust to care for our most vulnerable members of our society, our elderly and very young family members, extremely low wages. This is completely bonkers. Moreover, home health care work is hard and gross. Unlike babies, the elderly and infirm are heavy and can be violent. Like babies, they produce a lot of bodily fluids that can go everywhere and also have other health problems. Moreover, it’s not as if there’s some huge hiring hall for home health aids. These are workers, often with very limited education, who do not much meet each other. We are a long way from the organizing model of the United Auto Workers and other industrial unions, who organized the many thousands of workers on the floors of GM, Ford, and Chrysler in the 1930s and 1940s. Organizing single workers or small groups of workers is hard and time-consuming, especially with the lack of a culture of solidarity that can develop in getting to know your co-workers. And yet, SEIU has over a million members in part on using this model.
To make all these issues even more challenging, home health workers exist on the edge of the public and private sector. They don’t work directly for the states, but the government pays them through an agency of the government. This has led governments to fight granting collective bargaining rights to these workers and requires extensive legislative campaigns to do so, which has happened in several states in recent years, including my home state of Rhode Island. These workers are mostly women of color. A study of Los Angeles County homecare workers in the 1990s showed that 83% are women and half are over age 45. About 39% were Latina, 25% African-American, and 7% Asian-American. Overall, these workers spoke 100 languages in Los Angeles County alone. Moreover, and to make all of this even more complex, 49% of California homecare workers at the time were family members of their patients. In California, they made the state minimum wage, had no health insurance, pension, or vacation pay. Recalled one of the activists who would soon become a union leader, Esperanza DeAnda, “We were the invisible workforce. Nobody even knew we existed.” This made sense since the job could have 40% turnover in a year.
It would seem that no one would really be able to organize these workers. But SEIU was already rising as the union of the low-wage service workers. Its Justice for Janitors campaign had already put it on the map in Los Angeles as a union that was pro-immigrant and pro-service work. But SEIU put in the resources for a real campaign. The first task: find the workers! This was a problem the UAW definitely had never faced. SEIU sent organizers to senior centers, doctor’s officers, wherever they could find lists of workers, including digging in trash cans. This succeeded for one core reason: the workers really wanted to be organized. In fact, the campaign took off like gangbusters once they found some workers to start the process. Within the first six months, starting in late 1987, they signed up 12,000 workers. No one homecare worker knew that many other workers, but most knew a few and those networks built up real organizing capacity. The organizing office gave workers a place to come together, meet each other, and build solidarity. It was necessary because this was going to be a long haul.
The SEIU office had other functions too. It could help workers find new jobs. It also helped the union mobilize workers for the legislative actions needed to organize these workers. The homecare workers became a major catalyst for the fight to raise the minimum wage in California during the 1990s, which succeeded in a fifty cent raise from $3.75 to $4.25. They fought hard against a horrible situation where the state could withhold their paychecks when the government faced a budget impasse, winning a lawsuit to end the practice. And they were a force stopping bills to reduce their services. Then in 1996, the workers became serious leaders in a campaign to raise the minimum wage to $5.75, doing a ton of door-to-door canvassing. All of this built up organizing capacity, militancy, and activism, even if it didn’t win them a union contract yet. Organizing on a smaller scale took off in San Francisco and Alameda County as well.
To get a union contract, SEIU had to find a bargaining agent with which to negotiate. A first lawsuit to get Los Angeles County named that was tossed out by a judge who also basically said that no government entity was required to bargain with the union. So that was a big problem. Instead, SEIU worked with consumer groups to create an independent agency as who would organize this work and thus provide an employment of record. The creation of a public authority worked, with three laws passed in 1993. SEIU and its allies then had to set up the public authorities and make them functional, which took lots of time too. It took another direct action campaign to finally get one in Los Angeles County in 1997. Finally, there was a bargaining agent.
When the 74,000 home health care workers of Los Angeles County voted to join SEIU Local 434B on February 25, 1999, it was a huge victory for the labor movement, enough to forestall the annual decline in union density for a year. It wasn’t perfect. In fact, one of the deals, which makes sense from the perspective of the “consumer,” a word I hate when describing the people using social services, was that they had the right to hire or fire a worker without cause. Obviously, someone needing homecare needs to be comfortable, but an auto plant with a shop steward banging the machines with the contract was not going to happen here. But nonetheless, this was a real victory. In Los Angeles, SEIU was able to get the workers $6.25 an hour and a medical plan for the first time on a five-year contract. This was similar to the contracts it had gotten in its San Francisco and Alameda County campaign, except that in the former, the wage was pushed up to $9.70. The main difference though, and the reason why the L.A. campaign is what we are focusing on, is that campaign organized 10 times the number of workers as either of the other two campaigns.
Today, SEIU has continued fighting for homecare workers and has become a national leader in fighting for the rights of the low-income workers who make up the American working class. This is the real American working class, not the mythological white working class in industrial states that the media focuses on obsessively. Those people are working class too, but the working class is in fact by far the most diverse part of the country.
This is the 347th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.