Detroit There were several excellent discussions I enjoyed at the Labor Notes Conference that focused on the challenges and lessons learned in organizing home health and home day care workers. In Citizen Wealth and anywhere else I have argued that the one indisputable success in the last generation of labor organizing has been the breakthrough in unionizing these “informal” workers with their lack of a workplace, confused and contingent relationship with employers, and minimal wages and benefits.
Part of what made theses sessions so amazing was the fact that the principal unions that had been in the trenches building these victories were in the room, many of which were long time partners and companeros of mine and our community of organizers, including the path breaking SEIU Healthcare Workers Illinois and Indiana, formerly SEIU Local 880, and our friends from UFT/AFT in New York City and CWA with whom we had organized child care workers. The leading proponent of this work in home childcare from AFSCME was there, stewards from the home care unions in California, authors writing about the work, and others still pushing forward in Ontario and elsewhere. The credit was pulling this together goes to labor journalist and former CWA stalwart, Steve Early, who decided this was important more than six months ago and campaigned steadily and aggressively to make the session happen. And, surprising to some, Steve could not have been a fairer and more balanced and supportive moderator. Props all around.
Past the questions of “how to build a more perfect union,” which is worth more discussion some other time since these unique workers have provided not only a great organizing challenge well met, but have confronted great organizers equally with what kind of on going local union format serves them best, were the terrible and disturbing reports of these workers under fire from budget cuts, real or imagined, and conservative attacks on their right to organize. The budget meltdowns in states throughout the country poses huge challenges, especially for the state and federally supported and reimbursed workers. In New York and Illinois there were deep efforts from the grassroots up to build solid legislative support to meet these challenges.
The more immediate and concerted assault seems to be directed at the very right of these workers to organize and maintain their unions. In a short time unions have been sued by the infamous Right to Work committee in Illinois and Michigan challenging recognitions and dues deduction systems. Given the fact that the Illinois organization was able to undergird their original executive order with overwhelming legislative approval, their 30 year battle and success seems secure. Michigan seems more fragile since the organizing rights and dues programs were won through executive order by Governor Granholm and never double bolted by legislative action. With a new governor coming to Michigan and many believing the Republicans in position to win there, organizers could imagine many successes in Michigan facing drastic setbacks. Certainly, this has happened in other states and federally as the tide turns with changing executives.
Despite some high profile disagreements in organizing these workers, there was a real sense of unity in the room and the hope for future collaboration among unions. Matthew Luskin, organizing director for old 880, summed up powerfully, and perhaps surprisingly to some, with a call for just such solidarity. Hopefully, in the face of the coming assaults to these fragile units, this is a clarion that will be answered at the local level, regardless of the resistance from headquarters in too many national unions.