Goal: 50,000 Stronger
AFSCME launches massive organizing campaign to build strength, fight for better wages and rights
Riverside home care provider David Luera, a member of UDW/ AFSCME Local 3930, reaches out to Anna Cota. Also a home caregiver, Cota began to cry contemplating the difficulty of making ends meet on meager earnings. The union will work to increase the number of hours for which caregivers can be compensated. (Photo by Erika Paz)
RIVERSIDE, CALIF. – Anna Cota greets David Luera outside her Southern California home, basking in the warm sun for a minute before the visit. Both are home care providers. But they have more than their professional responsibilities in common, even if Cota doesn’t realize that yet. Once inside, Luera sits on the couch and explains how they’re both represented by United Domestic Workers (UDW) Homecare Providers Union/ AFSCME Local 3930.
“I never joined the union,” said Cota.
“That’s why we’re here,” replied Luera. It turns out, Cota’s been paying something known as an “agency fee” to our union for representation. The fee is the same as full union dues, but there’s a critical difference in California. Without being a member, Cota can’t receive direct political communications from the union. And without them, there’s no way for Cota to know that UDW is actively fighting a reduction in hours that resulted in lost pay for her and all the home care providers like her.
Cota listened carefully and then she explained to Luera how difficult it is to care for her mother on just $11.50 an hour – for a maximum of four hours a day. She had to drive a school bus part-time just to make ends meet.
Her voice breaks. “I’m lucky I got married last year or I would have had to keep working at my other part-time job,” she said.
Luera hands her a card for Cota to sign so she can become a member of UDW. Cota expresses relief that the union will work to preserve and improve the benefits she receives for her hard work.
“We do need more hours. It’s just not enough,” she said, tears beginning to flow.
She puts the pen to the card and adds her signature.
LIFTING WAGES FOR ALL
This story of home care providers building a union is just one of many within AFSCME. This effort involves all public service workers represented by our union. They’re engaged because AFSCME members know that collective bargaining improves wages and benefits. It’s a key component in closing the gap between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of us – the “income inequality” gap – that threatens to engulf the middle class the way a massive sinkhole can swallow a house.
There is abundant evidence that unions lift all workers’ wages. “Workers’ ability to form unions and engage in collective bargaining has been a cornerstone of a strong middle class,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez.
It takes a strong union to stand up and win a contract that respects the work we all do. That’s why, this spring, AFSCME unveiled a new campaign called “50,000 Stronger.” A top priority for our union, this is a new drive to sign up tens of thousands of new members, building greater power in places where workers are already represented by AFSCME.
In California, for example, UDW represents approximately 65,000 home care workers.
“In UDW, we have a culture of organizing new members,” says Exec. Dir. Doug Moore, also an AFSCME International vice president. “Through these efforts – along with building strong community relationships – we can collectively fight back the continued attacks on working families and make real improvements in our members’ lives.”
With the help of volunteer member organizers (VMOs) like Luera, and the use of technology like iPads to assist their efforts, this AFSCME affiliate is growing even more powerful by calling to action new members like Cota, who pay fair-share fees (in some states slightly less than full membership), but who have yet to become members.
Two years ago, the hours of paid care that a provider could give were reduced in California by approximately 8 percent. For Luera, who was already living on a tight budget, it was painful. “It means a lot to me, especially when we’re just barely making it now,” he said. “I’m looking for other employment as well. I’m trying to seek out more caregiving.” Meanwhile, he hopes that, through UDW, he and his union sisters and brothers can work to restore those cuts, and maybe even increase his compensation for caring for his wife’s elderly aunt.
“She had no one else to depend on now,” he says. Keeping her out of an institution means finding a way to keep her at home. Luera and his wife are both caregivers now.
Natasha Gordon, Riverside home caregiver and member of UDW/AFSCME Local 3930, makes a visit to a fellow home care provider to explain the power of solidarity. (Photo Erika Paz)
With a stronger union, he says, perhaps the governor and state lawmakers in Sacramento will listen. “If it’s just two people going up to Sacramento to petition Governor (Jerry) Brown, that’s nothing. We need hundreds of people to show there is a force concerned about the cuts.”
Natasha Gordon, also a Riverside home caregiver, is part of that force. Also out visiting non-member caregivers as part of the new organizing campaign, she is motivated by providing the best care for her autistic 15-year-old son. She wants to keep him at home so he can have the life – and opportunities – he won’t get at an institution.
But it’s been hard for a single mother living on an income of $11.50 an hour, limited to just a few hours a day. “Without Social Security I couldn’t do it,” she says.
By volunteering to increase UDW’s membership through organizing, Gordon wants to make her union stronger so it can help them achieve their goals. “I’m doing it to get the word out in regards to how mobilizing benefits us.”
“I would like to tell people to come and join with us,” says Norma Barajas, a Riverside home care provider and UDW member who visited providers in February to get them to sign up with UDW. (Photo by Erika Paz)
Norma Barajas, a UDW member for the past three years, cares for her mother and brother. She would need to work outside the house if her hours are cut more. That’s why she’s out door-knocking too. “I know they can help me,” she says of her fellow union members.
“I would like to tell people to come and join with us,” Barajas says, so they will gain the benefits she already has. Most importantly, that means the power that comes from direct involvement with a union that fights for them every day.
POWER IN NUMBERS
Marty Hathaway, president of Local 2985 (Iowa Council 61), knows about the power of unions to increase wages and benefits. As a member of his council’s executive board, he also understands that it takes VMOs to build and maintain that power.
Marty Hathaway, Iowa Council 61, Local 2985 president (Photo: Local 2985 / Iowa Council 61)
A longtime corrections officer at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Oakdale, Iowa, Hathaway was in the middle of our union’s fight there last year against the anti-worker policies of Gov. Terry Branstad. A wage freeze, reduced health coverage and a hike in insurance premiums were on the governor’s agenda; and he even campaigned on a pledge to require state employees to pay 20 percent of their health insurance premiums.
To win, they set out to increase the union’s membership. More members mean even more fighters to stand up to the governor. This is how they succeeded.
First, they appointed a committee of corrections officers, both old and young, to get the perspectives of different generations. Then they created an action plan to fight the 20 percent insurance increase, which amounted to a pay cut. They created a flyer to send to members and non-members, explaining the governor’s scheme. “We were saying, ‘This is what’s going to happen to you unless you join us,’” Hathaway said.
They also worked with Council 61 and other AFSCME Iowa locals to create the “Not OK” button, meaning “it was not OK to lie down.” Members wore them at work. Non-members asked what they meant.
Those buttons – and the questions they raised – helped bring co-workers into the union. They continue to organize today because the next fight is right around the corner. “There is a movement in the nation to bring down unions so that we’re not so powerful,” Hathaway said. But with VMOs helping to increase union strength through numbers, tearing down unions will be much harder – perhaps impossible.
Hathaway says he tells everyone at the Classification Center, “You’re now entered into a field controlled by politics. You can either be a player in that, or stand on the sidelines and see what happens to you. I choose to be a player. I stay involved so I have a voice.”
Others are joining him.
IT’S ALL ABOUT FAIRNESS
Mike Mosesso doesn’t need to be reminded why it’s important to organize. A president of Local 2622 (Pennsylvania Council 13), he sees those reasons every day.
The council is already engaged in organizing externally under AFSCME’s “Power to Win” Initiative, a national program launched in 2006 to organize new members, spur member activism and increase political power. Activists are currently strengthening the union’s foundation by engaging fair share fee payers.
Mosesso is a leader in that effort.
In his day job, he is an intake caseworker for the Office of Children, Youth and Families of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. Mosesso investigates the alleged maltreatment and neglect of children. In his union job, he looks out for the rights of workers in various agencies spread throughout the county.
That means both “full-dues paying” or “fair-share” workers, who pay a half-percent less fees for their representation than regular AFSCME members pay as dues. Mosesso says it makes common sense to have as many fully engaged union members as possible when heading into contract negotiations.
“When we sit down to negotiate our contract, we want the county to understand that our numbers are strong, that we have as many people as possible on board” who are standing together to demand a “reasonable living wage for the work they do for the citizens of this county.”
Their internal organizing drive began last summer, using a strategy developed within Council 13 that was successful, and which continues today. “We looked at ways to re-engage our current members, and to go out and reach the fair-share folks as well,” Mosesso said.
“We’ve always made a point to engage the fair-share members,” he said. Before, however, there was no “official framework” for that task.
The need to grow the union, internally and externally, is significant. As proof, he pointed to the union-busting efforts of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who tried (successfully, in Walker’s case) to destroy the collective bargaining rights of public service workers in their states. “The fight is now on our doorstep,” Mosesso said. “It’s a very real threat, and it’s something we’ll have to address. We need as many people on board as possible to show our politicians and legislative representatives that we are not in favor of being a right-to-work-for-less state.”
His coworkers “provide some very key services for Allegheny County,” he said. “It’s important their right to work for a reasonable wage – and the rights protected through a contract – remain intact.”
Building a stronger union, he said, can ensure that happens.
NEXT WAVE VMOs
AFSCME Next Wave members in St. Louis recently signed up at least 46 new members for the Missouri Home Care Union, AFSCME Council 72, which last year began negotiating its first contract.
The effort was part of an organizing training for volunteer member organizers (VMOs) during the Next Wave National Advisory Committee meeting held in late February. Some 800 VMOs will be trained in the weeks ahead as part of AFSCME’s “50,000 Stronger” campaign to boost AFSCME’s membership ranks.
Orlando Rivera, Jr. (left) of DC 37 with care attendant Kevon Short (Photo: Orlando Rivera, Jr.)
“We’re standing on common ground,” said Next Waver Orlando Rivera, Jr., of Local 371, DC 37, in New York City. “It’s the same fight everywhere, and organizing members is what makes us all stronger.”
The state’s 13,000 Medicaid-funded home care attendants gained the right to have their own union in 2008 when voters overwhelmingly approved a measure giving them the freedom to bargain for improved client care and working conditions.
In 2009 they formed the Missouri Home Care Union, a partnership between AFSCME Council 72 and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). A legal battle ensued, resulting in a state Supreme Court decision in 2012 that ordered the state to certify the union election. Today, they are at the bargaining table as they continue to build union membership.
Next Waver Todd Weyer understands the urgency of the new organizing campaign. “Big business and the politicians are focused on taking down working people,” said Weyer, a member of Minnesota Local 3168, Council 65. “Minnesota could be the next Wisconsin. What we did this week is an example of getting on the frontlines and getting it done.”
MacArthur Jackson, Jr., a new member of the Missouri Home Care Union, said it was “an honor” to be “part of a national force for workers,” adding, “It takes people getting involved to get it done, and an army of people can do it.”
Sonia Islas and Gabriel Guerra, both members of Local 59 in El Paso, Texas, made home visits to co-workers this February to organize for power. In their state, where it is illegal for non-uniformed public sector workers to have a union contract, or to negotiate over wages and benefits, power means political strength. And that means strength through numbers.
UDW/AFSCME Local 3930 VMOs stand in solidarity, ready to bring more home care providers to the AFSCME family. (Photo: UDW/AFSCME Local 3930)
Both Islas and Guerra are probation officers for the West Texas Community Supervision and Corrections Department. Others represented by the union work for the Lower Valley Water District. The two are also VMOs, building their union through organizing to better fight for fair treatment, to ensure decent working conditions, and to protect their civil service rights.
It boils down to dignity on the job.
“It’s an honor to be a member of this union,” she said. “We’re not just members of a club. It’s a way of life. Now, I couldn’t see my life not being a union member. It’s important. It gives you a sense of purpose, a sense of security, knowing there are other brothers and sisters looking out for each other.”
—Joe Lawrence contributed to this story.
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