Union Blues Lift in Chicago | The Nation


Union Blues Lift in Chicago

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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.

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