Tuesday Dec 10


Defining Victory

Three weeks into the exhausting strike, the union hall was packed. Hundreds of home care workers hoping to win all the things their jobs lacked — Like decent wages, any sort of benefits but most of all, dignity and respect — Together now to battle the employer’s disregard and not so benign neglect. For one thing, the agency owner referred to them as his quote “girls” unquote. Now, these were settled age women, many grandmothers, the absolute backbone of their families, churches and community. So such a patronizing form of address really got their collective goat. For them, the heavily publicized strike was a chance to move forward, an opportunity.

When Anne got up to relay the company’s final offer, the room got very still. And soon a mountain of expectation melted into a deflated molehill. No sick days, No holidays, No raise in pay — nothing, nada, nill, But a wage re-opener, provided the state increased the reimbursements Plus modified union shop and seniority in assignments.

If you thought the room was quiet before, it was even quieter now. Looks of dismay, disappointment and confusion on every brow. In that crucial moment, with rank and file looking down into a dark cravasse Minnie Perkins jumped up and exclaimed, “Girls, we kicked their ass!” And in that crucial moment, the whole thing turned around. The people nodding in agreement, then jumping up and down.


Minnie Perkins was not, formally speaking, a leader. She was not on the bargaining committee, held no union office, was not a shop steward. But she was a veteran of decades of struggles in the health care industry. She had once lead a three day and night sit-in at a hospital to win a union election (before hospital workers had a legal right to organize); the union lost the election by a single vote. Blacklisted in hospitals and nursing homes all over town, Minnie was undaunted, and at the time she was fortunately working as a home health care worker.

For-profit Suburban Homemaking,Inc in Brookline employed 500 mostly African American, West Indian and Latina women as homemakers and home health aides, caring for elderly and disabled clients in their own homes under a state funded and reimbursed program. The union had been elected in a landslide, negotiated with a company determined to crush us for nearly a year and finally had no choice but to strike.

There were many heroines of the strike. Every morning we would gather at the company office (where no actual work was performed), and, after Georgia Young lead us in a song called “I Got A Feeling Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”which she brought from church, then load into school buses for a day of actions. We would sit in at the Department of Elder Affairs one day, canvass the governor’s neighbors for canned food donations the next, busloads to the boss’s mansion in rural Southern NH. Hundreds of workers took over the governor’s re-election office and refused to move. When the captain of the Tactical Police Force (TPF) threatened our leader Rose Jackson that he had dogs and paddy wagons outside and would soon start making arrests, she calmly told him to go ahead and see if the governor thanked him for the televised spectacle.

Other workers, including Azelene Dunn, Mae Pickett, Pam Scott, Wilma Brinson, Shirley Coleman, Golden Townsend, Curly Blackmon, Warrean Eaton and dozens of others, never lost faith in the struggle. These women taught us all about courage, making the best of things, never giving up.

All their faith and effort hung balanced in the air when Minnie jumped up to steal victory from the jaws of defeatism. She saw in an instant that the union shop article meant that the union was here to stay, that the employer had been forced to recognize the union and we would live to fight another day. And the wage re-opener dependent on the action of the state gave us a clear road map for how to do it. Within six months we turned out hundreds of homemakers and home health aides from even more companies at the state Rate Setting Commission hearing, raised the rate modestly and bargained for wage increases. Within three years the wages doubled.

From this important victory, the union went on to organize home care workers in Chicago where eventually 91,000 workers joined, Los Angeles where 74,000 workers voted for representation in the single biggest union election ever and in many other cities and states around the country. Now about one quarter of the membership of the Service Employees Union — about a half million workers — are home and child care workers. In Massachusetts, the design of the program has been significantly changed but still about 20,000 personal care attendants are part of the union.

So in defining what at first seemed to many like a defeat as a victory, Minnie Perkins saved the day. And that victory was a defining one for the union as a whole from coast to coast.

This poem is taken from Red Nose Mike: And Other Stories in Verse Mainly by Mike Gallagher distributed by Social Policy Press and available at www.socialpolicypress.org

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