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Union, Yes!

After more than 18 months of hard work, home care providers in Vermont vote “yes” to form their own union through AFSCME.

By Pablo Ros
Clockwise from top: Smiling home care providers celebrate victory; Mary Montgomery Warren testifies at the Vermont House of Representatives; Vermont maple syrup bears an AFSCME Vermont Homecare United campaign label.
Clockwise from top: Smiling home care providers celebrate victory; Mary Montgomery Warren testifies at the Vermont House of Representatives; Vermont maple syrup bears an AFSCME Vermont Homecare United campaign label. (Photos: Top-Karen Conner; Bottom- David Kreisman)

The Vermont Labor Relations Board in Montpelier sits on an old residential street lined with Victorian-era homes. Its cozy interiors and sleepy surrounding town – a tiny state Capital nestled in green hills covered in pine trees – made it a highly unlikely setting for this year’s largest labor organizing victory in the nation.

As the votes of thousands of home care providers deciding whether to unionize with AFSCME were counted on a sunny day in early October, two dozen supporters of AFSCME Vermont Homecare United crowded into the board’s tight spaces. They smiled every time a “yes” vote was called out and cringed at the rarer “no” vote.

For more than 18 months, they worked toward this moment, through Vermont’s icy hard winters and tire-sucking muddy season. They went door to door, having lengthy one-on-one conversations with fellow home care providers, urging them to stand up for themselves and those they care for by voting to join AFSCME.

Heather Boyd, a home care provider on the organizing committee, was there throughout those 18 months. And she was packed into the board for the vote count. Waiting.

“The moment we would hit 50 percent plus one, we knew we couldn’t lose at that point,” Boyd said, referring to a critical point when one final  “yes” would signal that a majority of votes were cast in favor of forming the new union. It would be the moment in which AFSCME Vermont Homecare United would move from a possibility to reality for 7,500 home care providers across the state.

A little after 11 a.m., it came: “Yes.”

“I was like ‘Wooooohoooo!’” said Boyd. “I was high-fiving the people around me and hugging folks. ‘We won! We won!’”

Cheri Weber, another organizing committee member, joined her. “I was ecstatic and overjoyed,” Weber said. When the moment arrived, she “turned around and there were people behind me who had teared up.”

A Model of Grassroots Union Organizing

In the final tally, more than two out of three Vermont home care providers who voted in the election cast their ballots in favor of forming the new union. “To see us come out at 71 percent was exhilarating,” said Boyd. “It really drove it home that a lot of people chose to vote and the answer was overwhelmingly ‘yes.’”

As Carolyn Klinglesmith, director of the AFSCME Vermont Homecare United campaign, put it, “This was a decisive win.” But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. This organizing victory was never a sure thing. It was contingent on, among other things, passage of a bill that would give collective bargaining rights to home care providers. And it was not an easy win, but rather the result of endless days of hard work in which people like Boyd and Weber, who had little or no organizing experience, took a chance on AFSCME.

“Many providers worked very hard to get the chance to vote for their union,” Klinglesmith said. “They undertook this challenge passionately and with motivation, and they put their hearts and souls into it. I’m confident that they will move quickly toward reaching a fair contract with the state.”

AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders echoed that sentiment. “The home care providers of AFSCME Vermont Homecare United worked tirelessly to win collective bargaining rights in the Green Mountain State,” he said. “Many spent countless hours meeting personally with other providers to explain why it was so important for them to have a voice on the job through AFSCME. At kitchen tables, on front porches, at picnics and even in the grocery store, these home care providers showed their fellow providers how coming together through AFSCME brings them one step closer to better pay and benefits, overtime protections, and training opportunities.”

AFSCME Sec.-Treas. Laura Reyes, who was a home care provider, added that the Vermont home care workers’ determination “inspires us, and this victory serves as a model for grassroots union organizing work across this country.”

Indeed, this organizing win – with 7,500 eligible voters making it not only the largest in the nation in 2013 but the largest in Vermont state history –inspired AFSCME activists  from coast to coast. Volunteer member organizers from all over the country traveled to Vermont during the past two years to share their experiences with Vermont providers. AFSCME Vermont Homecare United will join their sisters and brothers of Council 93, which represents more than 45,000 state, county and municipal employees in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“The council is very excited,” said Frank Moroney, executive director of Council 93 and an AFSCME International vice president. “The entire council was engaged in this campaign, and it took everyone’s efforts to move forward. We’re looking forward to working on a first contract.”

AFSCME represents some 125,000 home care providers in the nation. Its largest concentration of home care members is the 65,000 providers in California, who are members of the UDW Homecare Providers Union, Local 3930. That’s AFSCME’s largest affiliate in California and it has represented home care workers for nearly 30 years, helping to improve patient care and worker treatment through the state’s In Home Supportive Services program.

Provider Janelle Blake grins while opening her ballot.
Provider Janelle Blake grins while opening her ballot.(Photo by David Kreisman)

“I think the Vermont victory demonstrates that AFSCME made it a priority to organize home care providers as well as child care providers and other non-traditional workers,” said Doug Moore, UDW executive director and an AFSCME International vice president. “This helps build political power and is an integral part of building the labor movement. It also helps to build power within the communities in which home care providers live.”

The idea that the Vermont home care organizing win is celebrated as a victory for all workers was echoed in the Midwest.

“It’s important when a state has recognized the value these workers perform for America’s most vulnerable citizens,” said Danny Homan, president of Iowa Council 61 and an International vice president, referring to home care providers, who care for people with disabilities and the elderly. “More and more states across our nation need to do that, and we need to provide them with a living wage and benefits.”

Other Important Victories

Success in Vermont wasn’t the only important achievement for home care workers this year. In November, providers from across the country will gather in Burlington to share their stories and learn from one another for the first ever AFSCME National Home Care Provider Conference.

In Iowa, home care providers and those they care for achieved a major win in September when they helped preserve the jobs of providers who are part of a program that gives more than 4,500 consumers control over the care they receive. The program is the most popular among home care consumers in the state, but the state’s Department of Human Services intended to eliminate the individual provider option.

Council 61 immediately mobilized home care providers and consumers to prevent the disastrous rule change from going into effect. “This decision represents a major victory for individual providers, their consumers, and the bipartisan coalition we built that stood up for some of the most vulnerable Iowans,” Homan said. “We will continue our efforts to be the strong voice that protects providers and their consumers.”

Also in September, the Obama administration announced it would extend minimum wage and overtime protections to home care providers, a huge victory that was long overdue.

For years, AFSCME advocated for the changes announced by the White House. The new protections follow decades of home care providers’ work being underestimated, undervalued and underpaid. As Heather Boyd, the Vermont home care provider, well knows, she and her fellow providers are often treated as babysitters making a little extra pay, when in fact most of them are women who rely on the income to support their families.

Home care workers are disparagingly said to provide “companionship services,” when in fact their work is increasingly valuable as our country’s population ages and they help save billions of dollars in hospital, hospice and nursing home costs.

The decision by the Obama administration to extend Fair Labor Standards Act or FLSA protections to home care providers is a welcome sign that such misconceptions may be changing for the better. Boyd said she looks forward to the day when she’ll be able to achieve the goal of a livable wage, better hours and improved working conditions through the collective bargaining process.

“Once we become stronger and we get recognition as having a real career, we can come forward and say, ‘Hey, these are real jobs and we need to really negotiate and talk about our benefits,’” Boyd said. “We can make this happen.”

Moving Forward

Even as home care providers in Vermont held a celebration on the night of their hard-won victory, their minds were already looking forward to the tasks ahead.

Ballots are tallied
Ballots are tallied(Photo by Karen Conner)

In the next few months, they need to vote on a bargaining team. Nomina-tion forms were mailed the day of their big win and were due back by the middle of the month. Once a bargaining team is elected, they can start focusing on their priorities. Surveys were sent to determine what those priorities will be.

They’ll also have to choose a local number that reflects the uniqueness of AFSCME Vermont Homecare United. It’s all part of the grassroots organizing approach that AFSCME embraces: Members guide our union, starting at the local level.

In January, the Vermont providers will begin to negotiate their first contract. “I’m so grateful,” said Cheri Weber. “I’m looking forward to more hours for myself and more hours for the people we care for.”

The experience of forming their own union had an added bonus to many home care providers: They were deeply gratified by the organizing work. The feeling of building a union from the (sometimes mud-covered) ground up.  For the past 18 months, they met other home care providers facing the same issues they did, and they were heartened to know that in this fight they were far from alone.

Like Heather Boyd, others know they are now permanently involved in the labor movement and working for progress.

“I definitely want to continue organizing,” Boyd said. “It’s in my blood now.”

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