Unions regroup amid US smokestack shift
If words have colors, then surely the word ''labor,'' as in ''union,'' is blue, the blue of a slightly faded denim work shirt across the back of a burly metalworker with an Irish or Polish or Italian or some other ''white ethnic'' name.Skip to next paragraph
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The mind's eye goes on to the steel-toed boots and the metal lunch bucket and the pickup truck out in a factory parking lot surrounded by chain-link fencing. And maybe the truck has a bumper sticker that asks, ''Have you hugged your steelworker today?''
After all, that's what organized labor looks like, isn't it?
Let's try again.
Geneva Evans, a black woman in her middle years, is unwinding at the end of a long, muggy afternoon in the headquarters of Local 1475 of United Labor Unions, on Massachusetts Avenue, just around the corner from the Monitor news room.
She is a service worker, and service workers, especially women, and especially minority women, have traditionally been seen as at the bottom of the organizing agenda for unionists in this country. But as the economy continues to shift away - in terms of numbers of jobs, at least - from traditional manufacturing toward service employment, union organizing activity has followed. The Service Employees International Union, at 875,000 members one of the largest in the AFL-CIO, is also one of the fastest-growing in the country.
And the SEIU ''has put its money where its mouth is,'' says Michael Gallagher , staff director of Local 1475, in helping to organize poor people.
Ms. Evans has worked for 10 years for the Boston Council of Elders as a home-care worker, one of 17,000 across the commonwealth who visit some 43,000 elderly ''clients'' in their homes, doing their housework, cooking their meals - and keeping them out of nursing homes. A number of other states have similar programs, and they are a front-line defense in the battle to contain health-care costs. This sort of care costs $1,800 per year per patient in Massachusetts, vs. a minimum of $14,000 annually for nursing-home care.
But the starting wage for home-care workers under contract through Local 1475 is $3.75, plus minimal benefits: three personal days off annually, plus, in some cases, two weeks' vacation. The top wage is $4.80 an hour. And this is with a union contract.
''There are no holidays and no sick days,'' says Ms. Evans, ''and no guaranteed hours. If a client goes on vacation, or has to go into the hospital, well, that's it, as far as you're concerned.''
Local 1475, representing some 1,100 home-care workers in Boston, is about to become Local 1475 of the SEIU, the result of a June 8 merger vote by United Labor Unions, a small, independent union with locals in Chicago, Detroit, and New Orleans, as well as Boston.
What will the merger mean?
''Politically, as an independent union trying to organize lowest-income workers, those the other unions overlook, we found ourselves isolated from the union family,'' says Mr. Gallagher, though he hastens to add that there have been exceptions to this.
''And then financially, the SEIU has put their money where their mouth is - they have promised to subsidize our organizing, to the tune of $2,000 per month. That will enable us to put our organizers on a livable salary.
''We've always had to scramble for money. Last weekend we sold hot dogs in the South End for two hours. We made $130. I'm proud of that.''
The next two targets for organizing, he says, are a visiting-nurse association and, for the first time, a nursing home. The union is also pushing a bill in the State House that would make home-care workers' pay similar to that of comparable state employees. ''A janitor, for example, or an institutional nurse's aide,'' Gallagher explains.
But what about the traditional union member, he in the steel-toed boots?