“By 1928, the UMW (United Mine Workers of America) was in a headlong race to oblivion…From a high of more than 500,000 bituminous members in 1921-22, the UMW membership had fallen to perhaps 80,000 by mid-1928…the UMW was in retreat… (UMW President John L) Lewis had little to save, for his organization as an effective trade union was dead everywhere except Illinois…
By 1932, the average hourly earnings for soft coal miners had fallen to fifty cents, and in the following year almost one third of the nation’s mines paid their workers less than $2.50 a day…
The plight of the union paralleled the fate of the coal miner. By 1932 little remained of what had once been the proudest trade union in the United States… Unionism had been erased as a functioning institution from the coal fields... Pennsylvania, which once included more than one hundred thousand members in in its two primary soft-coal districts, counted less than fifteen hundred. And the gem of the union, Illinois District 12… had been shattered…”
From “John L Lewis: A Biography,” By Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tyne, 1986, University of Illinois
In 1928, and in the early Depression years of the 30’s, many doubted that the United Mineworkers (UMW) headed by its leader, John L Lewis, would survive many more months, not to mention years that would be needed to rebuild it and the rest of the US labor movement, which was reeling from decades of government-sanctioned union-busting and the ravages of the Great Depression.
According the US Department of Labor (USDOL), labor union density, or the percentage of the workforce in unions, was only 7.5% in 1930, having dropped from almost 20% of the workforce in the years 1918-20, right after World War I.
The Janus Case
Today, many equate the “lean years” of the late 1920’s to early 30’s to today’s labor movement, likewise under siege from government-sanctioned union-busting and court cases like the current Janus case, which will be decided by the US Supreme Court, sometime in early to mid-2018.
If the Supreme Court decides in the Janus case – as many overwhelmingly predict they will – to change US labor law with a sweeping decision outlawing “Fair Share” or union shop in public employee union contracts, US union membership could plummet by millions of members, further weakening the US labor movement which today represents only 10.7% of the US labor force (and less than 7% of the private sector). This could mean dramatically lower wages and benefits for public employees and many other workers, as has been the case in Wisconsin and other states that have gone this same route in recent years.
And that’s just the start; the anti-union, corporate-funded right-wing hit squad euphemistically called the National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC) has other cases even more damaging to working people and their unions “in the pipeline” to finish off unions for good. On top of that, they have other well-funded campaigns – oiled by the Koch Brothers’ and other far-right ideologues’ money – to try and convince even more members to drop out of their union.
“Mine Worker Moments” in our History
In my experience with our original union, the United Labor Unions (ULU), an independent union, established by the national Executive Board of national community organization ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) in 1978, we were committed to organizing low-wage workers in our communities – low and moderate income, multi-racial, primarily women, living in communities lacking power. ULU sought to organize the primarily low-wage workers in our communities – workers that traditional unions could not, would not or did not organize.
As a field organizer, lead organizer, head organizer, and eventually President of our union, I was more than familiar with our share of “Mine Worker Moments” in our own history - either in building a union with no members from the ground up; or the reverse: losing huge numbers of our members, but then rebuilding our union into the fighting union of today.
With the specter of the Janus case in front of us, it is useful to look into our past experience to help pave our way forward. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned that may help as we move forward in a post-Janus world:
• 1983 – “To Win You Have to Begin!” - Founding a Union – our union was founded in 1983 in the basement of the United Methodist Temple in downtown Chicago, by seven homecare workers who voted to organize their union, joined and paid their dues, and grew to organize and represent over 91,000 workers over 34 years: homecare, childcare, hospital and nursing home workers – workers that many thought were impossible to organize before, but who overcame those obstacles and did it!
• Living off the Land and Hand collecting dues – those early workers didn’t have the luxury of even dues deduction or union contracts, but we, borrowing a page from labor history, started hand-collecting dues, selling chicken dinners on payday, canvassing for donations, and even holding “tag days” on busy street corners – building a democratic, self-sufficient, organizing union was our goal and we would raise funds by any means necessary until we built the power to win.
• No Time to Be Dogmatic: Use Whatever Works - “McMaid,” the NLRB, and private sector homecare organizing (from 1983-2003) – We used the representation elections procedures in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to organize private sector homecare agencies when it worked – with our first private sector NLRB victory in 1984 at “McMaid,” a small private sector homecare agency at the time - which led us to eventually organize over 25,000 private sector homecare workers. But we also strove to transform the debate and the legal landscape and write new laws that would cover homecare, childcare and other workers that labor law at the time was inadequate to cover.
• 1984-1985 – Merge Strategically for more Resources – we engaged in strategic mergers that would bring more resources to our fight for justice for workers shut out by traditional unions and labor law: from our initial merger with SEIU in 1984-5, to our merger of all the healthcare locals and childcare workers in Illinois in 2008.
• A Union in the Community, a Community in the Union: Checkoff to Majority (1983-94) – we engaged in aggressive membership drives and built internal membership systems with whatever mechanism we had at our disposal: hand collection of dues, dues checkoff, or union shop/fair share campaigns. These campaigns helped us grow as we engaged in aggressive community, workplace, and political campaigns: from fighting for wage increases to fighting utility shutoffs, to fights for affordable housing, to working to re-elect Harold Washington, we did what it took in all of our organizing spaces. After five years of private sector wins and campaigns to win wage increases and outlaw the $1 subminimum wage that the state was then paying, we won our first ever “meet and confer” agreement in 1990 with dues checkoff that allowed us to sign up thousands more members and do even larger community, workplace and electoral campaigns. Later, in 1994, we won a more expansive agreement with the state that included a “Fair Share fee” provision that allowed thousands more to join our union or pay a fee equal to the dues – with this we signed up even more members eventually topping 10,000 for the first time in our history!
• 1996 – BANK DRAFTS: Home childcare – hand collection again, but with new bank draft technology! We didn’t let anything get in the way - when our Executive Board voted to organize home childcare providers in 1996, even though there was no way we could win a contract or dues checkoff at the time, we organized the providers anyway and engaged in campaigns around reimbursement rates, zoning issues, and more. We signed up members by hand collection as well as using a new “bank draft” technology pioneered by ACORN and others in community organizing that we transferred to our labor organizing and were eventually able to sign over 1000 childcare providers up as members before we had a formal union contract.
• 1996-1998 – Expanding What We Learned: Going National, organizing 500,000 more homecare workers through the SEIU Homecare Task Force – within the International Union, we were organizing for a more aggressive national organizing campaign to organize the hundreds of thousands of homecare workers throughout the Midwest and the rest of the US. Out of this was born the “SEIU Homecare Task Force.” As one of the leaders in homecare organizing, I journeyed across the US with a committed organizing team and did the research and worker conversations for the eventual organization of the majority of the industry. From this small effort in 1996-98, SEIU eventually organized over 500,000 homecare workers in states from the west to the east coast, winning living wages and benefits for workers that just a few years prior had been stuck at minimum wage. Quite possibly the largest union organizing campaign in modern labor history.
• 1998-2002 - Losing Fair Share and rebuilding – AGAIN!
But there was trouble on the horizon once again in Illinois and because of a lawsuit we lost Fair Share in our contract on April 1, 1998, dropping our membership within 24 hours from over 12,000 members to barely 5000. But we didn’t let this slow us down: we regrouped, reorganized, and from 1998 to 2003, we signed up thousands of new members so that by 2003, when the unit had grown to 20,000 providers, we had signed up well over 10,000 members, more than doubling our membership in the unit – in an open shop environment with an unfriendly governor and state bureaucracy. We did it not only with an aggressive membership campaign but through local and statewide membership-based coalition campaigns around raising local and state minimum wages, and other issues on and off the job as well – including winning “Kidcare” Medicaid expansion, affordable housing, immigration reform, and anti-predatory lending campaigns with ACORN and our community allies.
• 2002 – POLITICS MATTERS: Electing a Governor, Changing the law and Winning Recognition –
in 2002, the time was right to elect a new governor and we did. In the largest get-out-the-vote operation seen in recent Illinois history, we, together with the SEIU State council and locals and our community and political allies, were able to elect a new governor. This new governor – Rod Blagojevich - had been the only Democratic candidate to sign onto our candidates’ questionnaire pledging to allow homecare and home childcare workers the right to organize. Twenty years of organizing and building power with our members brought us a new labor law in 2003 – passed by an overwhelming bipartisan vote in both houses of the legislature! This was followed up by negotiations over a first-ever collective bargaining agreement that contained a 35% wage increase over four years and other major improvements in benefits. This contract helped move our membership from only 15,000 in January, 2004 to over 29,000 by November 2004 – almost doubling our membership in ten months!
• 2005-2014 Years of Growth and Unification!
The following year, we pushed for and won similar legislation and a contract for the over 35,000 home childcare providers in the state – ushering in a 35% rate increase for providers statewide and winning other improvements in the first agreement. Bolstered by the new homecare and childcare contracts, as well as new organizing and growth in our private sector homecare contracts, our membership soared from an average of only 14,000 members in 2003 to 30,642 in 2005, to just under 68,000 for 2007.
In 2007-2008, all three healthcare locals in Chicago: Local 880 (homecare and childcare), Local 20 (hospitals, clinics, and social service agencies), and Local 4 (nursing homes) voted to merge into one local called SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, eventually adding Missouri and Kansas to form “SEIU HCIIMK.” We had grown from a relatively small local just five years before, and now were the tenth largest SEIU local nationally, with 83,123 total members in 2009!
The years 2009-2013 were a period of uninterrupted growth for the newly formed HCIIMK: because of our aggressive organizing, our deep roots and relationships and campaigns with our community allies, and our contract settlements, and grassroots independent politics we grew from 83,123 in 2009 to 91,664 in 2013 and rose from the 10th largest local in SEIU to the 5th largest local of SEIU’s many locals!
• 2010-2014 – We Kick “Fight for 15” in Gear!
New York Daily News columnist and reporter, Juan Gonzalez, in his new book, “Reclaiming Gotham,” gets the birth of the “Fight for 15” movement right – he explains how crucial the ACORN spinoff, New York Communities for Change (NYCC) and Jon Kest was in New York, as was Action Now and it’s lead organizer, Madeline Talbott, in Chicago :
“…Their action was hardly spontaneous, however. It had been months in the planning by the workers, together with leaders of New York Communities for Change, one of ACORN’s local offshoots, and a group of organizers hired by the powerful Service Employees International Union. ACORN had disbanded by 2010, but Jon Kest remained in contact with former ACORN leaders Madeline Talbott in Chicago, and Amy Schur in California. ‘They had all been experimenting with some low-wage workers organizing.’ Jon Kest’s brother, Steve Kest, recalled. ‘Jon said, maybe we should organize fast-food workers. I pulled together a meeting with Jon and the Organizing Director at SEIU, Scott Courtney. Jon, Madeline, and Amy came in and we pitched to SEIU to give us the funding to start. The Fight for 15 slogan came later. It was Madeline Talbott in Chicago who thought of it. We didn’t do any research on it. It just sounded good because it was twice what the minimum wage was.’”
Off of these initial campaigns, SEIU organizers and funding spread the campaign across the country, preaching the gospel of the $15 minimum wage, making it into the political mainstream. Today, through various statewide and local campaigns, buttressed by the national campaign, over 20 million workers are on a path to $15 – including over 400,000 workers in Chicago who are benefitting from a $13 minimum wage passed by the RAISE CHICAGO campaign spearheaded by Action Now and our allies and passed during the 2015 mayoral and city council races; as well as the $13 Cook County minimum wage passed in 2016.
As early and aggressive supporters of the Fight for 15 campaign, HCIIMK members and staff turned out in large numbers to the actions, and were main proponents of the campaign internally in SEIU at local and national levels and incorporated the campaign in our organizing, political, legislative, and electoral campaigns.
2014 – Harris V Quinn – “KILL SHOT?”
But, once again, there were storm clouds brewing on the horizon. Just as in 1994, when a conservative advocate took legal action and forced Republican Governor Edgar to rescind our Fair Share agreement; the right-wing Koch Brothers, and corporate-funded “National Right To Work Committee” (NWRTC), funded a lawsuit challenging the rights of homecare workers to have a union shop where they work. The case was called “Harris v Quinn.”
Despite agency shop and union shop having been the law of the land in US labor law for well over 70 years, on June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court voted, by a thin 5-4 majority, to outlaw “fair share” fees for homecare and childcare providers.
We immediately moved into action and later that month kicked off one of the largest membership drives in our local’s history in coordination with the other locals in the national SEIU Homecare Council.
Because of this campaign, hundreds of staff and member organizers in HCIIMK, went out and “hit the doors,” and through house visits and various training and membership events, along with new signup technologies, we signed up over 16,000 fee payers into new members over a twelve-month period and ended with over 65% of our public homecare members signed up! This is quite a feat when you consider that our more than 50,000 homecare and childcare providers are located in 50,000 separate homes across the state of Illinois.
On the national level, we signed up over 150,000 new members and likewise mitigated what could have been a catastrophic loss for our members and staff.
Even with this outstanding work, we still suffered large losses. Three years later the Harris v Quinn decision shows this: These Supreme Court attacks on unions have very real consequences. But to the right’s dismay, this precursor of Janus was not a kill shot – not by a long shot.
We were not sanctioned by the Supreme Court when seven workers came together in a church basement in Chicago and started organizing 34 years ago – no Supreme Court granted us the right to organize, but we organized anyway!
We had no formal legal support or status whatsoever and no chance for recognition for the overwhelming majority of our members, but we organized anyway. Here again are the lessons we learned that may be useful for others facing Janus:
• WE ACTED LIKE A UNION AND WE KEPT ORGANIZING, despite having NO legal rights to do so.
• With our roots in both community and labor organizing, we utilized the best of both models and remained flexible and were able to adapt to crises.
• We took on exciting member-led campaigns from both inside and outside the membership, many times with our community partners: from utility shutoffs to affordable housing to the Fight for 15.
• We engaged in disciplined, systematic membership drives using a variety of technologies and systems: from the hand collection of dues to dues checkoff to union shop, to more modern methods of bank draft, credit and debit cards.
• We had a Transformative Vision of bringing workers who were long-denied the right-to-organize into the light of day, exposing the conditions, and demanding and winning the right to organize for hundreds of thousands of workers.
• By doing all of these, we changed the rules of the game.
Today – Janus “Kill-shot” or Shot in the Arm?
Like the United Mineworkers in 1932, many had tried to write us off as dead. Many look at the Harris v Quinn case or the Janus case or other Supreme Court cases and see the death knell for labor, or they look at the myriad ways that the Trump administration and Republican governors have at their disposal to stop dues checkoff, withdraw union recognition, weaken wage, hour, health and safety, and many other hard-won laws in an effort to take away the few rights that we have remaining – and they may be right.
Let’s return to the Mineworkers in 1932, who had few of the legal protections we have now. They still rebuilt, reorganized, and helped to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the CIO, which led to the organization of the mass production industries of their day and drove union membership from less than 10% in 1932, to over 35% in 1955 and helped to build the American middle-class.
Right before the Harris v Quinn decision, one labor writer portrayed it and similar decisions as a possible “kill shot” for labor that could lead to a long-expected final death blow to America’s unions, built upon the legal foundations and financial stability of the agency shop “fair share” mechanism.
But from a union that has already survived a similar legal “kill shot” from Harris v Quinn, the Janus case just could be a shot in the arm for labor and our allies.
Only time will tell if we can rise, like the United Mineworkers did in the wake of the Great Depression, and rebuild not only our union, but help form unions with the tens of millions of other workers across the United States who want and need a voice of their own.
“It Always Seems Impossible, Until It’s Done.” Nelson Mandela