Pearl River Waking in the predawn I found a wonderful and moving email in my in-box from two brothers and comrades in our shared organizing trade and mission, Mike Gallagher and Keith Kelleher. Mike sent along a poem he had written about the amazing Geneva Evans, an early and longtime leader, in our efforts to organize homecare workers. As a postscript he attached a remembrance I had somehow missed that Keith had written when Sister Evans passed away in 2018. The New York Times has begun coming to grips with great lives and contributions of amazing people they had missed. This is one that you won’t read there, but in these terrible times, I wanted to share some of their heartful words, because it is always worth remembering the heroes whose light has shined on our paths that we still hold tightly in our hearts and memories forever.
Ode to Geneva
Geneva Evans was a home health care worker, union leader and friend
Who passed a couple years ago, a too early untimely end.
In poor health in her later years, stuck in a basement apartment wreck
Trying to live on an unlivable $930 a month Social Security check.
So every so often, my wife Margaret and I would take her out to eat.
She liked anything — as long as it included potatoes and meat.
We heard about a new restaurant that featured North Carolina fare.
Because that was Geneva’s home state, we all decided to go there.
She pronounced the food authentic — so authentic that she began
To tell stories about growing up poor in her large tenant farmer clan.
The harder-edged term for it is sharecropping — chores from dawn to sunset,
Working the landlord’s land, six days a week, never out of debt.
Hoe the rows, de-tassel the corn, slop the hogs
Do the laundry, shuck the peas, feed the dogs
Plow the lower field, strangle the old hen
Go to bed tired, get up and do it again.
By 19 Geneva had had enough, became part of the push/pull Great Migration
Followed her older sister to Philly, then alone to Boston, got off the post slavery neo plantation.
She lived for decades here in Boston, but never lost her country way.
Homecare workers by definition have no common work site
So she would call up dozens of co-workers every night.
She signed up members at the Council of Elders, won the election.
Helped out on the big Suburban strike, took the union in a new direction.
And every Friday afternoon she would volunteer to go out to talk
To unorganized workers as they picked up their checks, encouraged them if they would balk.
About every six weeks she would lead a sit-down strike at her job
To make sure her 250 co-workers were paid with checks that did not bounce and bob.
She even traveled to Chicago and Los Angeles to spread the union word
There was no pot anywhere that Geneva had not stirred.
She loved Aretha and gospel and soul; that’s just a given, implied.
But also country and western music — and not just Charlie Pride.
We shared a mutual love of George Jones and would spin
His records on her machine, his plaintive voice getting under our skin.
So in closing, there are two things you need to know about Mrs. Evans:
She was country and hard working. The two are very connected.
In this time of pandemic and woe her loss has me sorely affected.
Because of her pioneering hard work and hardworking country manner
More than a half million home care workers now work under the union banner.
I miss her.
Keith Kelleher, former United Labor Unions and ACORN organizer who founded the Chicago ULU Local 880, which became first SEIU 880, and later was president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana/Missouri/Kansas(HCIIMK), the Midwest’s largest local union and the 7th largest local in the country, wrote about Sister Evans when she passed in 2018.
A great labor leader passed away last month. You won’t read about her in the NY Times obituary, but you should. You won’t read about her in labor history books, but you should. You didn’t study about her in your history class in school, but you should.
Her name is Geneva Evans and you should remember her name, because by taking action and organizing on her job, she made life better for hundreds of thousands of homecare workers and for the millions of people they care for every year.
She spent her whole working life in Boston’s South End, where she was a neighborhood leader and tenant activist in public housing. She was one of the first to respond to the call to organize a union at her non-profit home health care agency, the Council of Elders, in 1981. Geneva was a leader in the campaign to demand a union, which included a march on her employer’s office to demand recognition, and she later led the Labor Board (NLRB) election campaign where all but 5 of her 250 co-workers voted for ULU (United Labor Unions) Local 1475, a small national union founded by ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, to organize low wage workers, like homecare workers, that others thought could not be organized.
Geneva served on the negotiating committee and helped reach the first-ever contract for homecare workers in Massachusetts. Geneva participated in helping to win similar agreements in other agencies in quick succession, most notably by supporting the 500 workers at Suburban Homemaking and Maternity who waged an historic three-week strike for their first contract – one of the first homecare workers’ strikes in Massachusetts and US history.
Geneva became the president of ULU Local 1475 and remained so until the local affiliated with SEIU in 1984. In those years, homecare workers made great strides in winning increased reimbursements and higher pay highlighted by a 12 percent increase plus health insurance and sick days in 1987.
Geneva didn’t just organize in Massachusetts, she traveled across the country spreading the union gospel and spoke to the 1500 homecare workers gathered for the founding convention of the Los Angeles Homecare Workers Organizing Committee on Martin Luther King Day in 1988. That committee of homecare workers eventually became the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2015 that today represents over 300,000 homecare workers in the state of California. We would meet Geneva at local and national ULU, SEIU and ACORN conventions and she always encouraged us to keep organizing and keep pushing forward no matter what the obstacles – and we did. Eventually, we organized over 50,000 homecare workers in the public and private sector, and raised wages from only minimum and a $1 an hour in 1983 to $13 today, plus winning health care, improved training, hours of service, increased funding, and other benefits. Geneva’s encouragement to our leaders in Chicago, and the leaders in L.A. showed us what could be done when workers and consumers stuck together.
We all miss, Geneva. We join millions who are in her debt.