A Labor of Shove

A militant union, 26,000 low-paid workers, and a $23 billion budget collide in Olympia.

What costs tens of millions of dollars, creates 26,000 new public employeescomplete with workers' compensation, subsidized health care, and raisesand is a key element in the passage of a state budget? It's the Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) new contract for home health care workers, and you probably helped bring it to life. Sixty-three percent of Washington's electorate made the contract possible when they voted in favor of Initiative 775 two years ago. Now critics are claiming the voters didn't know what kind of a monster they were giving birth to. Supporters scoff at that, saying that the difficult, vital work performed by home-care workers deserves far better than the current pay of $7.68 an hour with no health care benefits or compensation for injuries on the job. While the specific debate rages in Olympia, SEIU, already the largest and fastest-growing union in North America with 1.5 million members, is making a major impact on Washington's political and economic life.

On May 12, hundreds of SEIU members, wearing their trademark purple shirts, welcomed lawmakers back to Olympia for a special session to resolve an impasse over the size of the state's biennial budget and whether new taxes should be included to fund education, health care, and home health care. Standing outside the temporary state Senate building, the union members sang, to the tune of "Frere Jacques," "Dino Rossi, cheap and mean," to highlight their conflict with the Republican-controlled chamber and Rossi, the Issaquah Republican who chairs its Ways and Means Committee.

THE REPUBLICAN-CONTROLLED Senate had insisted since January that any new taxes would damage Washington's ill economy. They preferred a course of deep cuts in current programs to close the state's deficit. The GOP certainly had no intention of funding an expensive new union contract that creates many other obligations for the state. "We don't have enough money for it," says Rossi.

The Democrats, who control the state House of Representatives, spent most of the regular 105-day session quarreling among themselves over whether to raise taxes or not. Throughout the process, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, stood firm in his support for the home health care workers. Chopp says, "These workers are amongst the lowest paid in the state, and they are doing very, very important work." Claims Rossi: "It's Frank Chopp's number one issue. He'll keep us here to July or August to get this."

On May 15, House and Senate negotiators reached a compromise on the overall size of a state budget$23 billion dollarsand the amount of new revenue that will be includedaround $184 millionmostly by improving the collection of current taxes and imposing penalties for late tax payments. Now the House and Senate will negotiate the specific programs. Will the home-care workers' contract be included? On Tuesday, Chopp and the House Democrats told the union they had reached an impasse with the Senate Republicans over the new contract for the home health care workers. Chopp asked the union to return to the bargaining table and come up with a newpresumably cheaperproposal. "We're still fighting for it," says Chopp.

How did improving the lot of these particular workers become one of the top priorities of the state House's most powerful Democrat? One voter at a time.

THIRTY-THREE YEARS ago, the state of Washington and the federal government began a shared program to pay people to take care of the ill, disabled, and aged in their own homes. Home care makes a lot of sense. The clients prefer living in their own homes rather than being shipped off to nursing homes or other institutional settings. The government prefers it because it's more humane and cheaper than institutional care. In order to keep costs down and ensure client control over their caregivers, the government defined these workers as "individual contractors" rather than state employees. That way, the state could maintain a legal fiction that the clients were hiring thousands of owner-operated businesses to provide home care while the government was merely acting as the clients' "fiscal agent," passing along wages. Next year, the state Department of Social and Health Services estimates that there will be more than 26,000 so-called "individual providers" doing home health care work in Washington. According to the state's best estimate, more than 60 percent of workers who are caring for the aged or infirm are looking after a relative. The union says 85 percent of the workers are women. This is not really a surprise when you consider that home care was once unpaid labor performed mostly by women and, like other "hidden" female labor such as child care and housework, is undervalued economically in spite of its many physical and mental demands. All of these conditions make the home-care workforce ripe for organizing by the SEIU.

Although the SEIU was founded in 1921, in recent years it has redefined itself as both a new kind of union and a throwback to the labor movement's origins. It is innovative in that it wants to organize newly arrived immigrants and people doing "low-skill" work like janitors and child-care workers. At the same time, the SEIU wants to return unions to their roots as a social movement of the dispossessed who raise hell until they receive fair treatment. It embraces all forms of activism, including politics.

WHILE THE SEIU has existed in Washington for decades, the full impact of its new social-justice approach to union organizing really began to be felt in the election of 2001. The union was frustrated by the state Legislature's inaction on improving the lot of home-care workers, so it took its demands directly to the voters in the form of Initiative 775. The union spent about $1.3 million to put the initiative on the ballot and to lead the campaign to pass it.

In short, I-775 set up a new state agency, the Home Care Quality Authority, which would regulate home-care workers and bargain with their union. Once the union and the Home Care Quality Authority hammer out a contract, it goes before the state Legislature, as outlined in the initiative, for a simple up or down vote. I-775 did not, however, provide any new money to pay for raises or better benefits.

"This is a poster child for the ills of the initiative system," complains state Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle. Jacobsen argues that I-775 had an appealingly simple messagehome-care workers are treated unfairlyand a host of incredibly complicated fine print to which most voters paid little attention. "We made a decision on Cliffs Notes," he observers wryly.

David Rolf, the passionate head of SEIU Local 775 that represents home-care workers, finds the senator's argument disingenuous. He observes, "Every [newspaper's] editorial board in the state campaigned against" I-775 (Seattle Weekly's was among them). "We were pilloried in the press," he complains. The public had plenty of negative information about the measure, and, he notes with satisfaction, "It passed with 63 percent" of the vote.

THE SEIU'S OPPONENTS complain about a lot of things on the union's wish list. Many legislators are concerned about giving raises to home-care workers in a year when they will probably eliminate the jobs of other state workers and teachers. Other politicians complain about new benefits, such as workers' compensation and subsidized health insurance, that are not only unaffordable but might force the state to re-categorize the home-care workers as state employees who would be eligible for pensions, full family medical coverage, and disability. Legislators expressing doubts are not only conservative Republicans like Rossi and Senate Majority Leader Jim West, R-Spokane, but also liberal Democrats like Jacobsen and House Appropriations Chair Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle.

SEIU's Rolf answers each charge with relish: Finding the money is just a matter of setting priorities; the union's polls show people are willing to raise taxes to pay for the contract's provisos; all the hoo-ha about the dangers of the contract turning the workers into state employees is just "an attempt to obscure the issues." He says of his opponents, "These people are going straight to hell."

ROLF AND THE UNION are not shy about confrontation, obviously. They held a vigil at the Spokane home of Senate Majority Leader West; they released a letter from the home-care worker who took care of West's mother, who urged him to support the contract; they held a rally led by Yakima Republican Sen. Alex Deccio's own priest, who urged him to back the union; they organized opposition to Jacobsen in his own district Democratic organization. And they're not apologizing for any of it. Rolf says defiantly, "Every social movement gets told: 'Go more slowly, ask more politely, be more patient.' That's classic boss behavior. They are afraid of workers having power." Christian Sinderman, a political consultant supportive of the union, notes that they not only punish opponents, they stand up for their friends. During key moments in important campaigns, vans full of people wearing purple shirts show up to doorbell targeted precincts. "They deliver bodies," says Sinderman. Politicians "don't forget that." That ability to mobilize at the grassroots level, he thinks, is why the union has been so successful at pushing the cause of home-care workers in this budget-strapped year.

As the Legislature moves toward its endgame in the long budget battle, the union has gained stature, win or lose.

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
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