Home-Care Workers' Vote for Union a Landmark for Labor
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

In the largest union election in modern U.S. history, Los Angeles County home-care workers voted nearly 10 to 1 to join the Service Employees International Union, according to a count released by state mediation officials Thursday night. The vote, which caps a decade-long organizing drive, brings an additional 74,000 low-wage workers un der the union umbrella in Los Angeles and adds to the emerging political clout of labor-backed Latino leaders such as Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who began his career as an SEIU organizer.

The union victory was a landmark for organized labor nationally and boosted by more than 10% the 700,000 workers now represented by unions in the county. The vote also demonstra ted that labor's recent strategy of targeting low-wage minority and immigrant workers, at a time when its share of the U.S. work force is in decline, can pay off in big numbers. "I believe the history books will show that their triumph today will play as important a role in American history as the mass organizing drives in the 1930s," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who came out of the SEIU, the nation's fastest-growing union, with 1.3 million members. The U.S. economy has grown ever more depende nt on low-wage Latino labor over the last several decades, and Sweeney said Thursday's vote could be a sign that such workers will begin demanding a greater share of the wealth. "Part of this is about crafting a future where all the boats rise together," said Villaraigosa, who is co-sponsoring a state bill to boost funding that will be needed if home-care workers negotiate a wage increase. A similar bill passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by former Gov. Pete Wilson.

The vote margin exceeded the expectations of organizers, who said the victory proved the feasibility of organizing low-wage, minority service workers, even in a scattered workplace. "This is a classic example of the kind of direction the movement is going in," said Art Pulaski, executive secretary of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. The union still must sign up members, negotiate wages and benefits with a county-appointed board and nurse along the state legislation to provide funding for any wage hikes.

At a news conference announcing the vote, labor leaders were flanked by five members of the Legislature, including Villaraigosa, a few home-care providers and half a dozen wheelchair-bound recipients of the service. Home-care workers, who earn the minimum wage of $5.75 an hour with no benefits, clean, cook, bathe and provide other personal assistance to elderly and disabled people who qualify for Social Security benefits. At least one-third care for members of their own families. They are paid by a mix of federal, state and local funds, while county social workers determine how many hours each client receives. That can range from a few hours a week to nine hours a day. If wage increases do occur, they would ultimately be borne by taxpayers. Clients th emselves find the workers through classified ads, church groups or word-of-mouth, but the county is starting a registry that would simplify the search and provide criminal background checks of workers.

Advocates say the home-care program, enacted in 1973, saves the state millions of dollars a year by keeping indigent people at home rather than in more-costly care facilities. Using those savings to increase pay and benefits would create a more stable and safe work force, they say. "There is a growing need in this country and it must be faced," said Bert MacLeech, a recipient and member of the county-appointed board that will negotiate wage and benefit issues with the union. "All of us have chosen to remain at home, and this program provides that option. This is a social obligation that we've got to gear up and face."

Home-care workers have already joined unions in five California counties: San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Mateo. At least two of those counties have since raised wages, up to $7 per hour in San Francisco. In Santa Clara County, workers were given bus passes along with a $1 hourly pay hike. David Rolf, general manager of SEIU Local 434B and a key organizer of the home-care worker campaign, said the unio n will immediately push for an increase to $7 an hour. "That is not enough," he said. "That is not where we are going to stop."

With about 80,000 people served by home-care workers, Los Angeles represents the largest share by far of the 200,000 people served statewide. The industry has been targeted for a decade by SEIU organizers, who helped bring together a coalition of w orkers, clients and religious organizations, staged rallies and protest marches, and worked on state and local legislation to ease the way for establishment of a union. Two years ago, county supervisors took the first step toward allowing a union vote by creating a public board--the Personal Assistance Services Council--which became the employer of record for workers, who had been considered independent contractors. Supervisors appoint the members, who are predominantly consumers. Neither the service council nor the county opposed the union drive. Slightly more than 74,000 ballots were mailed to home-care workers, and about 20,000 were returned. The final vote count, released by members of the state mediation and conciliation board Thursday night, was 16,250 for and 1,925 against, with some ballots voided.