A new union wave gathers momentum in California

Largest organizing election since 1941 boosts flagging membership ofAFL-CIO, signals a new tactic.

At 8 a.m., Cecilia Rivas arrives at the ninth-floor apartment of elderly retiree Bert MacLeech. She repeats the same routine she has completed nearly every day since 1987 - fixing breakfast, helping him bathe and dress, cleaning his apartment, and running errands.

For 140 hours a month (about 4-1/2 hours a day), the single mother of two receives minimum wage - $5.75 per hour - without benefits such as vacation or health insurance. Within weeks, though, all that will change - for her and 74,000 other home-care workers.

Capping a decade-long organizing drive that resulted in the largest union election in modern US history, such workers will likely earn $7 or more an hour and receive benefits they have never had. In a victory many observers are calling a landmark for organized labor after decades of downturn, workers last month voted to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

"I believe the history books will show [that this] triumph will play as important a role in American history as the mass organizing drives in the 1930s," says John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for 88 unions.

Indeed, during all of last year AFL-CIO member unions added only 100,000 members nationwide. Now, in one vote, 74,000 more have come into the fold - the largest union election since Ford Motor Co. auto workers formed a union in 1941. It also highlights what national organizers say is their primary strategy for the next millennium: Target low-wage minority and immigrant workers in an economy that is changing from manufacturing to service.

"This represents a US labor movement doing its best at what it must do - unite women, minorities, people of color," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor economist at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. She notes that the percentage of the American workers that are union members has been falling steadily since the 1950s, despite increased moves to halt the trend in the 1980s. Today, AFL-CIO membership is at just more than 13 million, slightly more than the 12.6 million members the federation had in 1955.

Part of the problem has been the huge growth of low-wage jobs such as home workers, janitors, and cashiers. Such workers are hard to organize because they have no one workplace such as the plants of old, when union organizers could stand in a parking lot or shop floor to attract a crowd or pass out leaflets.

So in Los Angeles, the vote was achieved by armies of workers like Ms. Rivas, who went door-to-door in barrios, schools, and shopping malls. The whole process took more than a decade, with the first organizing meeting convened on Oct. 17, 1987.

"This represents a major boost to the labor movement when it needed it most, when everyone is wondering if it can still commit organized American workers into unions," says Ms. Bronfenbrenner. "This campaign gives an absolutely unambiguous 'yes.' "

Currently, Los Angeles's home-care workers are paid by a mix of federal, state, and local money. By signing with the SEIU, one of the nation's fastest-growing unions with 1.3 million members, the workers sought to improve their collective bargaining clout with the government officials who control their overall funding. Similar drives to organize home workers are beginning in Washington, Oregon, New York, Illinois, and Connecticut.

"We feel this is the beginning of a new wave," says Andy Stern, president of SEIU in Washington, D.C. "The labor movement is trying to reinvent itself by becoming more relevant to the kind of service economy that has emerged with the baby-boomer generation."

Critics of labor's moves to organize home-care workers, however, warn that collective bargaining will lead to increased costs of home health care, although they are unsure of how large the increases will be. Any increases would ultimately be borne by taxpayers, they note.

But both home-care workers and clients counter that care in the home costs about one-fourth as much as similar care in public and private nursing homes.

"This is a wonderful and far less expensive alternative to nursing homes," says Mr. MacLeech. "Many of us just need a bit of help but don't want the loss of community that happens when you get shoved into a nursing home."

The measure that actually paved the way for the recent union election was passed two years ago when Los Angeles County established a Personal Assistance Services Council (PASC). The public organization oversees improvements in the current law governing the home workers and acts as the workers' employer.

"Until PASC was passed, home workers had no employer to actually bargain with," says David Rolf, who became a local leader of the home workers about three years ago.

Now, the next step is to lobby and campaign statewide for a state bill which will boost funding to pay for wage increases and benefits.

THE bill already has 55 co-sponsors, including the current speaker of the assembly, Antonio Villaraigrosa. A similar bill was passed and vetoed last year, but organizers think that new Gov. Gray Davis (D) will sign the bill.

"This bill has growing support because it raises the quality of care for disabled and seniors in their home by upgrading the labor force that cares for them," says Mr. Rolf.

Because of low wages, a 40 percent turnover in workers per year has been a source of great concern to those relying on home workers. The new law would establish a registry to do background checks of workers as well as training, increased wages, and benefits. Says Rolf: "We feel this is a win, win, win situation - the workers, the clients and the state."

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