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Home Care Workers Organize to Win Their Demands

by George Iechika McKinney |
February 1, 2000
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Los Angeles, CA - The single largest victory for the labor movement since the 1930s took place here last spring. Seventy four thousand homecare workers voted for a union, and won their first raise ever, from the State of California. This year, the struggle for a Union contract continues.

For an update on the struggle, Fight Back! talked with Yvonne De Los Santos, who spent nearly two years organizing home care workers in California. She is an East Los Angeles community organizer, a veteran in the struggle for Chicano national liberation, and a member of the New Raza Left.

Battle Continues

"We're fighting for another raise because Democratic Governor Gray Davis gave a temporary raise which will end in July 2000," said Yvonne De Los Santos, union organizer. "Right now the Union is fighting for a permanent raise and permanent funding. The union also has to pressure the State government to pay for this raise," she continued.

For years, the County of Los Angeles said that they were not the employer of home care workers despite the fact that they paid the worker's checks. They claimed the elderly and disabled recipients were the employers and encouraged them to act as if they were. At times, this produced bad relations between the workers and the recipients of their care.

Why Workers Organized

De Los Santos said, "When this campaign began, homecare workers were called 'chore workers,' out of disrespect." The new union members are mostly low-income people of color, and the vast majority are Black and Latina.

"They were barely making minimum wage, and they were working 15 hours a week a lot of the time, sometimes only 2 or 3 hours a day. Some of them are single parents, but they have been struggling for over 10 years to get Union recognition." Low wages, not enough hours, abusive clients, and dismal benefits, there were many reasons the workers wanted a Union.

The new union members come from Watts, Compton, South Central, and Inglewood, historic neighborhoods for African Americans in Los Angeles. They also came from East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, and Pico Union, neighborhoods home to the regions fast-growing Latino community. Where there are low-income neighborhoods in the inner city, homecare workers can be found.

National significance of victory

"This (campaign) has benefited the labor movement in Los Angeles and nationwide because it shows that focusing on lower paid, lower sector workers works. For years, the labor movement would not commit the resources to organize a union. This was a long and very hard campaign. And it's not over. But we've proven that we can organize workers even if you have to find them one by one at home, like we did," said De Los Santos.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 1999, the Service Employees International Union, the country's largest union, organized 100,000 workers nationally. 74,000 of them came from SEIU Local 434B, a predominantly Black and Latina women's organization in the heart of Los Angeles.

"Many of the women were overwhelmed, they could not believe that it finally happened after all these years. Home care workers were getting a little respect. They were finally getting a face where before they were invisible," continued De Los Santos.

According to De Los Santos, as a result of this campaign, many women have become organizers on the job and in the home. "Now, they're always organizing to build the membership, they do it voluntarily. They have learned how to organize and have empowered themselves with their organizing skills. Many of them speak publicly to the media, they have gone to lobby the state capitol, leaving at 2 in the morning to let Gray Davis know about their issues. Now, they know that working together they can do it. Even some of their children, their teenagers, they want to be organizers. This has been a life-changing experience."