people who control the machinery of popular American culture do not
truly believe in the dignity of labor. How could they, in a nation built
on the backs of slaves, a society in which human worth - humanness,
itself - was measured in direct inverse ratio to the difficulty of the
performed. The harder the work, the less esteem in which the worker
was held as a human being. The most difficult work of all was done by
non persons: slaves, who were thought to deserve neither money,
distorted were the social relations that flowed from this grotesque
organization of the economy, that the most intimate caregivers were
consigned to subhuman status, mere appendages of those in possession
of skin and wealth privilege. We are talking about the people who were
once called "mammies."
Mammy didn't even have a last name - and she certainly didn't rate a
slavery out of the job
coasts, the people who take care of the homebound ill and elderly are
proving to be among the most dynamic forces in American labor, rescuing
themselves, their families and the national culture itself from the
corrosive vestiges of slavery. In the process, these overwhelming female
workers of color have become catalysts for unprecedented
collaboration between the first- and fourth-largest unions in the nation,
the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation
of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
a leader of the stature of the late Cesar Chavez, to convince Black
activists Ken Msemaji and Fahari Jeffers, 25 years ago, that domestic
workers could be forged into a union. Today, the AFSCME-affiliated United
Domestic Workers of America (UDWA) and its sisters among SEIU's home
care units represent over 150,000 workers in California, having won
a series of representation battles over the summer. Moreover, the two
unions, once fierce rivals, have commitments from the state's governor
and leaders of both houses of the legislature to back a $1 an hour raise,
despite California's huge, looming deficit.
legislative stuff we do as very, very serious partners," said UDWA
President Msemaji, referring to his colleagues in the SEIU. Msemaji's
name means "Orator" in Swahili. Jeffers, still his organizing
partner after more than a quarter century, is the union's Secretary-Treasurer.
even in solitude
wage of about $8.50, medical coverage, and a union shop represent a
quantum break from the past for the caregivers, who faced the most daunting
organizing obstacles imaginable. These women - and relatively few men
- who are the indispensable lifelines for ailing and infirm outpatients,
typically had no health insurance of their own, and no paid days off.
Until 1999, the state did not even recognize these one-quarter million
workers as having an identifiable employer, despite the fact
that county agencies paid for their patients' care. Worse still, from
an organizing standpoint, home care workers toil in a kind of solitude,
at no fixed work address, following the patient load as it arises, finding
their own ways to and from home assignments. This is an organizer's
nightmare; a workforce in many ways less accessible than Cesar Chavez's
field workers, who at least gather in one place at a time.
to this, the polyglot linguistics of California, where the largely immigrant
home care workers speak at least 19 languages.
are salt of the earth people who have done more proportionately with
what they have than people in other sectors of society," said Msemaji,
with genuine wonderment. "They are in many ways a rich people."
this workforce developed a solidarity based on shared, mutually understood
conditions, a bond that proved both energizing and infectious.
AFSCME and SEIU organizers report vote margins of 90 - 95% in union
representation elections. "Most of these people are religious,
not necessarily Christian," Msemaji explains. "When the union
comes to town, they believe that God has answered their prayers."
unions, one mission
the workers to sign up is the easy part. "Then, the next challenge
is the actual bargaining," said The Orator. Confronting management
- now that management has finally admitted that it is the employer
- is a new and strange experience.
they feel that they can't do that," says Msemaji, who seems to
take no credit for the courage shown by his members. "But then
they find that they can. Actually, they have been bargaining all of
their lives." He marvels at "the transactions and deals that
the poor make every day to survive. I call that not only bargaining,
enchanting is developing in the relationship between SEIU and AFSCME,
at the national and state level. The two organizations share the work
of organizing California, each with jurisdiction over 29 counties. Where
once they poached each other's potential memberships, they now "work
jointly on behalf of each other," Msemaji reports from his base
in San Diego.
in the lead
New Jersey is the target of AFSCME-affiliated 1199 of the National Union
of Hospital and Health Care Employees' drive to organize 27,000 certified
home health care workers, most of them connected to private agencies.
As with the West Coast effort, NUHHCE is encountering few problems signing
up members. Rather, the agencies often refuse to bargain in good faith.
Although New Jersey is a heavily unionized state, home care agencies
refuse to believe that poor women have the determination of, say, the
bosses are in for a culture shock. Willie Lockhart is president of the
Jersey City local. "They are very proud," Lockhart says of
her members. "These are people who had no inkling previously to
be involved with a union," but they win election after election.
Lockhart estimates that her 600 members are roughly 40% Hispanic, 55%
Black, and 90% female. "We need to be proud that this is the first
time that Black women have taken over their union, in an industry that
was never organized," she said. "We promote within the union.
Women are in high places. Most of our vice presidents are women."
icon is Henry Nicholas, President of NUHHCE (pronounced NEW-Chee), a
tireless organizer whose vision has always been to bring health care
under one union umbrella. She's confident that AFSCME and SEIU will
soon formalize a unified operation in the sector. "Now, we're going
to have the money" to mount a concerted offensive against the agencies,
said Lockhart, who worked in banking and publishing before becoming
a caregiver and union-builder. "It's going to be fifty-fifty"
tells her younger members, "If I can do this, you can do this."
is mine. Where's the money?
Lockhart and her co-unionists are caregivers with the self-respect to
make demands and
fight their own battles. Dignity is a quality they already possess,
in abundance. And they are quite smart enough to grapple with the rich
and powerful. Solidarity is their weapon, and they continue to learn
its many uses.
care workers are aware that their jobs cannot be exported, and that
imported workers - immigrants - are flocking to the union, learning
and teaching the benefits of solidarity in many tongues.
farm workers leader Cesar Chavez inspired Ken Msemaji and Fahari Jeffers
to believe that domestic workers could be organized into a union, the
idea seemed preposterous. Why? Because Americans knew - even
the Black sons and daughters of domestics knew - that a "maid's"
work had little value.
Turner Ward explored these questions in the 1965 play, "Day of
Absence," in which the Black service class withheld their labor
- but it took an Hispanic farm worker activist and two youngsters from
the Black Power movement to set the machinery in motion. They believed
that people could free themselves, - not from the job, itself,
which has the intrinsic dignity of labor - but from the slave-master
relationships that still surrounded the occupation and dictated the
terms of work.
ranks of organized domestics swell, daily, while the overall rate of
union membership languishes at around 11 percent.
health care workers are steeling themselves for the struggles of the
New Economy - and sweeping out the vestiges of the old one. They are
a civilizing force.
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