Labor of Love

Labor of Love

Milwaukee’s home-care workers discover each other.


William Perry is blind and wheelchair-bound, but still a commanding figure at the age of 76. The retired Milwaukee steelworker, who weighs more than 250 pounds, holds his head erect and speaks in a warm baritone–now somewhat enfeebled by stroke–that once must have rivaled Paul Robeson’s. On a chilly Tuesday in early June, Perry and his daughter Alicia Treadwell, who has cared for him for seven years, go through their morning routine, just as they have for the past 2,000-plus days. Treadwell lays out towels and supplies, while Perry exercises by pulling on bars attached to his bed. They banter and gossip about family, local politics and what Eric Von, the city’s best-known black radio host, had to say this morning. Then to the next phase: “OK, Daddy, you clean yourself up. I’ll start on breakfast. Go to 9 o’clock on your table, and you’ve got powder, deodorant, skin cream, periwinkle, the Jovan musk–that’s the screw-off top. Remember that top?”

Perry gathers his facial muscles before he speaks, but the words come out fluently: “You go ahead, baby. I got it.”

When Perry came home from the hospital seven years ago, he had endured quadruple-bypass surgery and a series of strokes. Glaucoma had almost entirely clouded his eyesight. He could not raise a spoon to his mouth, and his doctors expected him to survive no longer than three years. But Perry had one piece of good fortune: Treadwell, one of his sixteen children, was a licensed nursing assistant with training in physical therapy. She gave up her job to tend to her father at home, receiving only a small wage through what Wisconsin now calls Family Care–a program that, among other things, allows low-income elderly and disabled people to hire workers (generally friends or family members) to care for them at home.

“When Daddy came home, I told him, OK, for three months, I’m gonna rock you like a baby. On that ninety-first day, we go to work.” And so they did: Over painstaking months and years, through endless tedious exercises, most of Perry’s strength and muscle control have been restored. Despite one catastrophe–an occluded artery that required the amputation of his right leg in 1996–Perry has recovered far beyond his doctors’ hopes.

Treadwell has a presence as strong as her father’s. She says she once promised a deceitful manager, “I’ll be your deepest nightmare.” But this morning she’s nervous. She and the 603 other employees of the nonprofit agency New Health Services (NHS)–one of two private agencies that deliver the supportive home-care portion of the Family Care program in Milwaukee County–have been voting by mail on whether to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and soon the National Labor Relations Board will count the ballots. Treadwell has been a leader of the organizing committee, knocking on her fellow workers’ doors to talk about health insurance, training and vacation time. “Oh, I can feel it in my stomach,” she says as she sets the table. “We’ve got to have this union. I’m not going to let it slip through my hands.”

For Treadwell, caring for her father has come at a heavy price. It’s not just the income she’s sacrificed by giving up her hospital job, but the relentlessness of the work: being on call every day for seven years with no weekends, no respites. And it’s the fact that Treadwell herself has no health insurance, while the RNs and the administrators at NHS headquarters do. As of March 2001, 93 percent of New Health Services workers were paid at the rate of $7.10 per hour, with no benefits of any kind. While Treadwell is very grateful that the Family Care program exists–and that it has allowed her father to stay out of nursing homes–she’s not at all happy with receiving only a subsistence wage. Early this year, Treadwell’s daughter bought her an expensive and much-needed pair of bifocals. “It was kind of a beautiful gesture,” says Treadwell, “but it was also embarrassing to me. While we were sitting there waiting for the glasses, I was thinking, Lord, it’s time to form a union. And then just a few weeks later, Maureen from SEIU knocked on my door. I had no idea anything was happening. I practically grabbed her by the arms–I was like, Get in here! Let’s go to work.”

If it wins, the New Health Services campaign would mark the first successful organizing of home-care workers in Wisconsin, following SEIU’s major late-1990s victories in California. It’s also the first union drive conducted under the terms of Milwaukee County’s “labor peace ordinance,” a measure supported by the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and enacted in late 2000. The peace ordinance–the first of its kind–requires private human-services firms with county contracts larger than $250,000 to make their workplaces and employee address lists available to unions, and forbids the firms to herd their workers into anti-union “captive audience” meetings. In return, the unions are forbidden to strike, boycott or picket in the course of organizing drives at such firms.

Most of all, the NHS campaign is worth attention because it’s the first large-scale organizing in Milwaukee at the low end of the wage scale since the 1997 launch of “W-2,” Wisconsin’s much-debated welfare reform system. President Bush plucked former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson into his Cabinet largely because of his image as architect of W-2; on a percentage basis, Milwaukee’s welfare rolls have fallen more dramatically than any other major US city’s. Thousands of former welfare recipients are now working here for $7 or $9 an hour as cooks, cashiers, nursing aides and school bus drivers. (Those, that is, who are working at all–even the most optimistic studies suggest that only two-thirds of former W-2 participants are now in stable employment.) Labor observers have been wondering for years whether the city’s unions–aided by the Milwaukee County Labor Council, regarded as one of the country’s most effective–could successfully organize these rapidly growing low-wage sectors. Might this home-care campaign represent a first salvo? A substantial number of NHS’s employees are indeed former welfare recipients, nudged off the system by W-2’s strict rules. These workers have gone, in effect, from receiving a pittance for staying at home caring for their children to receiving a pittance for staying at home caring for their parents. In the NHS campaign, labor organizing–a pragmatic, meat-and-potatoes response to welfare reform–brushes up against a more controversial response: the feminist call for people to be paid a decent wage to care at home for their dependent family members.

Jamie Stevenson, an organizer with SEIU Local 150, is feeling thwarted this afternoon. It’s six days before the mail-in ballots are due at the NLRB, and he’s crisscrossing Milwaukee knocking on the doors of NHS workers who may not yet have voted. Today Stevenson is assigned primarily to African-American neighborhoods. (The typical NHS employee is, like Alicia Treadwell, an African-American woman between 45 and 60.) At several of the doors, Stevenson gets no answer, and at a few others the workers seem apathetic or puzzled about the whole business.

Until a few months ago, Stevenson was a maintenance worker and union shop steward at a large Milwaukee nursing home. When the home shut down, Stevenson was hired by the local, and he’s now working thirteen hours a day on the NHS campaign. “I know it’s wrong,” says Stevenson as we drive down I-43, “but sometimes I get frustrated when people don’t even want to come to the door and talk. I mean, we’ve got organizers who’ve come from all over the country, from Chicago, from Los Angeles, working all hours of the day and sacrificing their family lives to help build this union–and some people don’t even want to talk.”

Some recent home-care campaigns have been home runs: late last year in Sacramento County, California, a full 93 percent of In-Home Supportive Services workers voted to unionize. But New Health Services, partly because it’s built on the family-care model, is different. Many of these workers don’t think of their home-care duties as anything like a career–in some cases they work standard full-time jobs, and are paid by the agency for one or two hours a day of supportive care for their disabled parents. And even full-time NHS workers may feel squeamish about unionizing to care for their family members–as if it’s impolite to suggest that they are in it for anything but love.

Later in the day, Stevenson encounters workers who are more eager to see him. One of these is Joyce Jones, a young woman who cares for a cousin with Down’s Syndrome. She’s sitting on her front stoop, minding a half-dozen small kids who are migrating from one porch to the next. “I’ve got to be there at 7 in the morning,” she says. “My cousin lives way over at 39th and Glendale, so I have two bus transfers. I’ve got to leave at 5:30. My kids’ daycare doesn’t even open until 7. We should get paid for that travel time, or they should at least pay for that bus fare.”

Stevenson’s style on these home visits is cool and terse. He smiles occasionally, but seems to try hard to avoid smarminess, to act as little as possible like a missionary or a social worker. “Mm-hmm. I hear what you’re saying. I’m a worker, too. I was in nursing homes here for quite a while…. So we can count on your vote?”

“Yeah, all right. I’ll get that ballot in.”

When we return to the Local 150 office at the end of the day, the mood in the war room is anxious. Organizers are trickling in from the field, debriefing one another over doughnuts and Diet Pepsi. (Only Stevenson, a vegetarian who works out at the Y every morning, avoids succumbing to this campaign diet.) The word tonight is that some workers have been getting aggressive calls from NHS, telling them that the union can do nothing for them, since NHS’s funds are controlled and capped by the county and state. They’ve also allegedly been telling workers, falsely, that if they’ve voted for the union and changed their mind, they can call the NLRB and formally report their change of heart. (NHS must know that the NLRB has no such procedure. They may simply hope to soften up the NLRB staff for eventual legal challenges to the election.)

There’s also bad news from the labor board itself: The NLRB has announced that it will return “partially signed” ballots–ballots on which the workers have signed their full last name but only initialed their first name–even though the ballot instructions say nothing about this. The NLRB won’t tell NHS or the union how many such ballots there are, so it’s not clear if this is a small crisis or a large one–but in any case, there probably won’t be time for those workers to send in replacement ballots before the deadline.

Stewart Acuff, a Chicago-based AFL-CIO deputy regional director who’s been assisting the campaign, leans back in his chair and says, “It feels like moving a mountain of sand. Every goddamn day there’s something new. It’s a perfect example of how screwed-up American labor relations are. Here you have a county government that sees that US law is supposed to be pro-collective bargaining–not pro-union but pro-collective bargaining–and passed an ordinance to try to make the process non-adversarial. And still we have to go through this shit.” (The next day, after phone calls back and forth between various lawyers, the NLRB relents and says it will accept all ballots, as long as at least the last name is signed in full.)

Finally the day arrives for the counting of ballots. Alicia Treadwell and half a dozen other workers have come to watch, in a windowless conference room in Milwaukee’s downtown federal building. First they have to endure forty-five minutes of tedium, in which the union and management review the voting rolls and file challenges, and young NLRB officers separate the unsigned ballots from the signed envelopes in which they were mailed, in order to preserve secrecy. When the counting finally begins, it sounds ominous for the union: as the first eight ballots are pulled from the box, the board staffer reads, in a steady rhythm, “No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.” Treadwell hangs her head in her hands, and the light goes out of the SEIU staff’s eyes. But as the tally proceeds, things slowly turn. John Goldstein, the wiry president of the Milwaukee County Labor Council, paces back and forth, trying to read the faces of the union representatives sitting at the three counting tables. Five or six minutes into the count, it’s clear that the union will win, and Goldstein turns toward the assembled workers with a smile: everyone’s cue to exhale. The final vote is 172 to 130. It’s a comfortable margin, much larger than the number of disputed ballots, and the NHS officials declare that they won’t challenge the results. Exactly half the bargaining unit of 604 has voted.

There are hugs and handshakes all around, and even the laconic Stevenson is smiling broadly. At the celebration that evening at Serb Hall, sitting below an oil painting of Jimmy Carter, Treadwell says, “I just couldn’t believe all those No’s at the beginning. I was thinking, Is change that frightening to people? We weren’t forming a bank robbery–we’re coming together to fight for what’s ours by right. But we did it.”

They did it–but winning a good first contract with NHS won’t be easy. In late June, the SEIU surveyed the agency’s workers about their grievances and priorities, and twenty members signed up to join the bargaining committee, which Treadwell will chair. NHS can provide certain reforms immediately: improved training, perhaps, and a “work registry” so that clients can more easily find good backup when their primary workers are sick or simply need a break. But major reforms–health insurance, pensions, higher wages–will require convincing the county and the state to make new investments in home care. Several religious leaders in Milwaukee have already committed themselves to work on such a campaign, and the SEIU is also in touch with advocacy groups for the elderly and disabled. This is the model that has been pursued successfully in California: aggressive lobbying, coalition-building and street activism have convinced county governments to raise wages and benefits for tens of thousands of home-care workers. The California victories have come during a time of surplus, however. Today the Milwaukee County government faces an $11 million deficit.

The NHS victory–604 workers–was the single largest union win in Milwaukee County in five years. It almost precisely compensates for the 600 union jobs lost last year when Milwaukee’s 152-year-old Pfister and Vogel tannery closed; thus does the American labor movement continue to tread water. The organizing terrain here remains extremely difficult. The vast majority of working W-2 alumni are in jobs–at Wal-Mart, Burger King, temp agencies–that are next to impossible to organize. These employers now know a thousand ways to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Wagner Act. As Robert Kraig, the state political director of Wisconsin SEIU, says, the apparatus of US labor law has almost completely broken down. “SEIU’s theory is to find new ways to connect politics to organizing”–through such measures as the labor peace ordinance–“because organizing in the current structure just isn’t going to happen.” The peace ordinance, which is being watched as a potential national template for organizing, is currently receiving its second test: Local 150 is using its provisions to attempt to organize the second of Milwaukee’s two Family Care agencies.

Notwithstanding the challenges ahead, the victory at NHS is a small blow for dignity in a city whose social safety net has been radically disrupted. And it’s also, at least obliquely, a reminder of unfinished feminist business: the need to win public policies that respect and reward caregiving work within families. “The population that has traditionally done home care informally, for no pay–that’s a disappearing population,” says Howard Croft, the SEIU’s national director of home-care organizing. “Middle-aged daughters and daughters-in-law–those women are now much more likely to be in the labor force already. There’s finally a greater sense out there that there are some sacrifices people shouldn’t be asked to make. If you’re giving up your job, your career, to care for your parents, you shouldn’t also have to impoverish yourself.”

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