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.”