The 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 tasks 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, nor dignity.

So 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."

In America, Mammy didn't even have a last name - and she certainly didn't rate a living wage.

Taking slavery out of the job

On both 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).

It took 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.

"The 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.

Solidarity, even in solitude

An hourly 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.

Add to this, the polyglot linguistics of California, where the largely immigrant home care workers speak at least 19 languages.

"They 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."

Somehow, 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."

Two unions, one mission

Getting 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.

"First, 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, but magic."

Something 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.

Women in the lead

Northern 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 Teamsters.

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."

Lockhart's 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"

She tells her younger members, "If I can do this, you can do this."

Dignity is mine. Where's the money?

Ms. 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.

Home 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.

When 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.

Douglas 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.

The ranks of organized domestics swell, daily, while the overall rate of union membership languishes at around 11 percent.

Home 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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Other commentaries in this issue:

The State of Black American Politics: Dr. Martin Kilson's Report to the National Urban League

A letter to our readers: Burger King digested... Ashcroft stalks librarians... Cory Booker roams wilderness

e-Mailbox: McKinney: A Hero in Need of Money... Rep. Hilliard Rebuked on Ivy League Warning... Forget About Randall Kennedy!

Commentaries in Issue Number 8 - July 25, 2002

Hilliard Calls for New Institutions to Protect Black Interests: Defeated Congressman expresses deep distrust of Ivy League -
A Black Commentator interview

Peace and Justice Forces Rally to McKinney: By Frances M. Beal, Guest Commentator

A letter to our readers: Reparations: The Value of White Privilege... Highly Suspicious Christian Soldiers... Neighborhood Watch in Havana... Binges and Wars Over Wall Street

e-Mailbox: Troublesome author wants space... J.C. Watts claims his face helps Black people... Vouchers cure "uncivilized" behavior, enhance brain... Moderate Republicans blame for woes


Commentaries in Issue Number 7 - July 11, 2002

Voucher Tricksters:The Hard Right Enters Through the Schoolhouse Door

Randall Kennedy: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Fool... How the NAACP Handled the N-word...J.C. Watts, Gone in a Flash

Race and National Security:
"Tar Baby Outrage" Update

Commentaries in Issue Number 6 - June 27, 2002

The N-word as Therapy for Racists: Randall Kennedy's Idiotic Assault on Black People's Honor

A Monument to George Washington's Slaves: Picking favorites among Black heroes and What a real man said on the 4th of July

Goin' South:
To save itself, organized labor must capture Dixie

CIA Trumps FBI: Forget about a War on Drugs

National Security News Alert: President is Warned Race Bias “Threatens National Security”- Special Edition - Issue Number 5 - June 13, 2002

Commentaries in issue 4 - June 7, 2002:

Tar Baby Outrage!: Racism and Corruption at the Redstone Arsenal

Condoleezza's Complaint & Paratroopers in the Basement: Connie's image and the Venezuelan coup

Did the Green Party Betray Black America: by Dr. Jonathan David Farley, Guest Commentator

A Law That Gives Racists Something to Fear:by Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Matthew Fogg, Guest Commentator

Commentaries in previous issues :

Condoleezza & Geraldo, a Fine Pair: The Role Models' Burden

Hard Right Cash Defeated in Black City - This Time
Ultra-Conservative Favorite Cory Booker Loses in Newark, New Jersey

Newark: The First Domino? - The Hard Right Tests its National Black Strategy

Fruit of the Poisoned Tree: The Hard Right's Plan to Capture Newark NJ

A Letter from Harvard: "How to spot a "Black Trojan Horse." Dr. Martin Kilson, Guest Commentator

Reparations Part One: The True Value of Some Land and an Animal

The Living Wage Movement: A New Beginning - Bread, Power and Civil Rights in 19 Languages

Rep. Cynthia McKinney's Statement on the Events of September 11: The need for an investigation of the events surrounding September11 is as obvious as is the need for an investigation of the Enron debacle.

Make The Amendment: How to Get the U.S. Government Out of the International Drug Trade

Psychologically Unfit: The U.S. Can't Handle the Death Penalty

Linquistic Profiling: By Patrice D. Johnson, guest commentator