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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,
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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
Women in the
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."
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."
is mine. Where's the money?
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.
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