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Union Blues Lift in Chicago | The Nation

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Union Blues Lift in Chicago

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Chicago

About the Author

David Moberg
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, writes frequently for The Nation on labor issues.

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Nine years ago an organizer from Service Employees International Union Local 880 knocked on Angenita Tanner's door. Tanner was a trained childcare worker who looked after children in her own home and was taking advantage of new funding from the federal and state governments for childcare that was part of welfare reform legislation. But she was upset: She had eight kids in her care and hadn't been paid for six months, even at the low rates offered, and she had no health insurance.

"When you have a home childcare operation, you're secluded," said Tanner, whose Teamsters father had taken her to union meetings as a little girl. "You know there are others out there, but you feel alone. The organizer said, 'We're forming a union,' and once I went to a meeting, I found out a bunch of us were having the same problems and more."

After years of effort, Tanner excitedly announced on Thursday that the 49,000 home childcare workers in the state of Illinois had a union that could now start bargaining for them. It was the first union victory for such home or family child workers in the country, and the largest single union representation victory since 74,000 home healthcare workers for the elderly and disabled voted to join SEIU in Los Angeles in 1999, which was itself the biggest union organizing victory since the 1930s. "This is big and the first of many," Local 880 head organizer Keith Kelleher said.

The Los Angeles victory triggered the organizing of more than 300,000 home care workers around the country so far, including a long campaign by Local 880 that culminated in representation for 30,000 Illinois home healthcare workers in 2003. Next week 40,000 Michigan home healthcare workers are expected to vote for SEIU representation.

SEIU sees the Illinois victory as the catalyst for organizing up to half a million family childcare workers nationwide. Childcare workers and organizers from nine states where campaigns were already under way joined the purple-shirted women from Local 880 to celebrate and learn from the Illinois victory.

A small core of home childcare workers had lobbied Illinois state government in recent years and won some improvements for providers, who are paid with state vouchers and graduated co-payments from all eligible low-income parents, not only those who have been on welfare. Most home childcare workers are "license exempt"--typically neighbors or relatives watching a maximum of three children--and now are paid a maximum of $9.48 per child for a day that often runs twelve hours long. Licensed providers receive around $20 per child and can care for more children, but more than half of all providers have no health insurance coverage, and SEIU figures that a typical licensed provider makes, after expenses, around $3 an hour.

But both the home childcare and home healthcare workers fall into an employment-law limbo, like so many workers in today's "flexible" economy, without a clear employer with whom they can bargain. The key to unionization everywhere has been using political pressure to change the laws or win executive orders to render the state or some new public entity the employer for purposes of bargaining. Having beefed up its political operations, SEIU was one of a few unions that backed the current Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, in the 2002 primary and won a pledge from him to establish collective bargaining for home healthcare and childcare workers. "We learned here in Illinois it's important to develop political power," said SEIU Illinois council president Tom Balanoff. "Unions need to increase their political strength and hold politicians accountable on questions of collective bargaining rights."

The Illinois victory comes at a time when unions are debating the future of the labor movement and particularly of the AFL-CIO, and the national debate became entangled with a short but sharp confrontation over union strategies in Illinois.

Although SEIU had started much earlier in organizing home childcare workers, Illinois District Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees contacted home childcare workers last fall as part of its electoral activity and indicated interest to the state in establishing procedures for such workers to unionize. AFSCME is the leading public employee union nationwide, though dozens of other unions, including SEIU, have organized many public employees. With about 150,000 childcare workers, AFSCME also claims to be the leading childcare union, though its members are largely in licensed centers, Head Start operations and other institutions covered by state or federal labor law, unlike the home childcare workers.

When Blagojevich announced an executive order for the home childcare workers in February and SEIU promptly filed its petition, with 10,300 certified signatures, AFSCME suddenly decided to enter the contest, and in a little more than a week collected 7,800 signatures. SEIU was furious at AFSCME's decision. SEIU president Andy Stern attacked AFSCME president Gerald McEntee at the AFL-CIO executive council meeting, where each had been on opposite sides in the debate over restructuring the federation and implicitly over the future of AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. Stern demanded that Sweeney intervene, but for nearly a month SEIU did not invoke the arbitration procedures the AFL-CIO has established to resolve inter-union organizing competition.

Out on the streets of Chicago, organizers from the two sides--boosted with staff from outside the state--became increasingly confrontational, and tires of AFSCME organizers were even slashed. SEIU, which had nearly 500 organizers of its own from around the country, brought in nearly 200 organizers for a weekend from several of its allies in the contest within the AFL-CIO--UNITE HERE, Teamsters, Laborers and United Food and Commercial Workers.

After the election had already started, SEIU filed charges with the AFL-CIO against AFSCME and quickly won a decision that it had the exclusive right to organize based on its having started a substantial campaign with a good chance of winning far earlier than AFSCME, which then withdrew. In the end, 16,756 workers voted, 13,484 of them for SEIU. Despite bruising pressures on the state budget, head organizer Kelleher is confident, based on successes in 2003 with home healthcare workers, that the union can win at least some of its demands for rate hikes, health insurance and better training. The union also hopes to negotiate a contract that will collect union dues or a "fair share" representation fee from home childcare workers. Based on home healthcare experience, that would mean that roughly 70 percent of the 49,000 workers will actually join the union.

The confrontation between AFSCME and SEIU is rooted in a recent history of conflicts in Illinois, but it also reflects difficult issues in the debate about labor movement restructuring, and there's a good chance that the two big unions could confront each other again in other states unless their leaders can work out some understanding. At one level, the complex feud in Illinois between two of the biggest, most progressive and once fairly cooperative unions was triggered by the defection of one SEIU local from a hospital contract coalition in 2002, undercutting AFSCME's bargaining. But it escalated through a series of incidents in which each union blames the other for misconduct or sabotaging the other.

In 2003 it erupted in a battle over AFSCME's decision to try to organize home healthcare workers, where Local 880 had long established a presence. AFSCME criticized the governor's executive order and eventual legislation, which made home healthcare workers (and eventually, in a separate order, daycare workers) a distinct type of employee of the state rather than of an independent commission, as in many other states. "With the homecare workers, we feel that SEIU lowered the standards of state employees," AFSCME District Council 31 director Henry Bayer said. "They're the only state employees without health insurance or pensions," and were excluded from state responsibility for workers' compensation. SEIU responds that with collective bargaining rights, SEIU was able to raise the pre-existing low standards and that now the union is fighting to expand on its gains to win insurance and other protections. There was no way, the SEIU's Balanoff argued, that the state was politically willing at a time of extreme budget pressures to make these tens of thousands of low-wage workers full-fledged state employees immediately.

SEIU leaders say that the union delayed filing charges with the AFL-CIO for a variety of reasons: They were surprised by AFSCME's success in signing petitions; they counted on Sweeney to act without formal charges; they worried that filing charges might delay the election. But the decision reflects complexities of the current national debate. Despite denigrating the effectiveness of the AFL-CIO and the procedures giving organizing rights, SEIU quickly won a favorable decision after it filed its protest.

At the same time, the decision was made on the basis of SEIU's being present first, and both AFSCME and SEIU have argued that the criteria should include other considerations, such as whether the workers in question are part of a union's core jurisdiction (which both SEIU and AFSCME now claim for childcare workers). Also, SEIU and its allies have argued that the AFL-CIO should prevent contracts that bring down standards for an industry, but the SEIU and AFSCME debate over standards in Illinois reveals how complex that decision can be.

While there has been a debate over how much money to devote to organizing and politics, AFSCME has argued most forcefully that political action to neutralize employer opposition is the most solidly proven route to organizing success. SEIU in Illinois demonstrated how that political strategy can work.

By calling in organizers from its labor movement allies, SEIU's campaign also demonstrated how unions can come together to help each other win large-scale organizing victories. It's the kind of solidarity that is essential but nearly nonexistent, last having shown up nearly a decade ago in support of an only partly successful United Farm Workers campaign to organize strawberry workers. Unfortunately, it took a fight between two unions, not a fight with an employer, to revive such solidarity this time.

The Illinois victory was a great triumph for unions in hard times, a reflection of long and hard organizing work and a critical political victory. It opens a door to future victories but also, unfortunately, to the potential of future conflict between at least SEIU and AFSCME over childcare workers in other states unless top union leaders can figure out a way to work together. "I hope these issues can get resolved," says Balanoff, "and we can all be working toward building the labor movement and working together."

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