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How Four Black Women Changed Homecare Organizing Forever

Above photo: Irma Sherman, Chair of McMaid Workers Organizing Committee.

Forty years ago in Chicago, McMaid workers sparked a movement.

Forty years ago, Irma Sherman and the over 150 homecare workers employed by “McMaid” (Yes, McMaid really was the name of the company) decided they’d had enough of low wages and no benefits and began to organize their union with United Labor Unions (ULU) Local 880, a small, independent union founded by ACORN, the national community organization.

While McMaid advertised itself as one of Chicago’s premier “maid services,” with a green and white logo depicting a scantily clad white “maid” happily dancing around with feather duster in hand, in reality, the workers at McMaid were mostly Black and Brown middle-aged women who were not happy about their conditions. While their employer lived very well off the backbreaking labor of Black women, they were forced to scrape by on minimum wages.

Although they were providing vital, life-saving health care –– which was well beyond their job description –– to hundreds of homebound seniors and people with disabilities throughout Chicagoland, they had no health care for themselves or their family members. If they fell sick, their only recourse was “the County” –– the then very aged Cook County Hospital with daylong waits for care. Unable to sacrifice a day or longer at the County Hospital, many ignored their own health to care for their clients, more commonly known as consumers, endangering themselves, their families, and their consumers chasing the pay they needed to put food on the table.

Any consumers over the age of 60 were served through the Illinois Department of Aging’s (IDOA) Community Care Program, from which McMaid received the bulk of their funding through contract. McMaid was reimbursed at an hourly rate set by the IDOA through a competitive bid process. Agencies competed to see who could pay the lowest, so the competitive bid process drove down wages to at or below the then federal and state minimum wage of $3.35 with few to no benefits.

Irma and her coworkers knew they were being abused and they organized to stop it. Little did they know that their titanic struggle with their employer would require pioneering new tactics and strategies, lead to new models of organizing, and spark one of the largest organizing successes in modern labor history.

But the boss wasn’t going to give in lightly. He hired one of the largest blue chip law firms in the city to fight their organizing drive, spending thousands of dollars of public funds to interrogate, harass, and intimidate Black women who only wanted to organize their union.

A Promising Start, The Organizing Committee Forms

The outlook had been good for Irma and her McMaid colleagues at the drive’s beginning. At the first check pickup organizers attended in September 1983, they collected union authorization cards from almost everyone they spoke to. 30 or 40 cards were collected in just a few hours! Cards were distributed to two, three, sometimes four people at a time, with Irma and some of the other workers joining in, talking to everyone and signing them up as they went in and out of the company’s office, dropping off last week’s signup sheet from their consumers, picking up their checks, and then coming outside again. Workers –– called “chore housekeepers” or “homemakers” –– were angry and were eagerly signing up.

Because of the excitement, an organizing committee meeting was called for the following Saturday in the basement meeting room of United Methodist Temple in the Loop. Seven workers showed up, including Irma.

Their complaints were many and often similar to what was heard at the check pickup: Wages were low (everyone was at or near the federal minimum wage of $3.35 per hour) while the company was reimbursed at a much higher rate by the state of Illinois. The company said they had health insurance, but no one signed up for it because what they deducted out of their checks and the $5000 deductible made it way too expensive. Even though the company said they offered paid time off, workers knew better than to try to take it or they’d be fired.

There was a general lack of respect shown to the workers by the mostly white management: young, mostly white women supervisors looking down their noses at workers and calling them “girls” when those “girls” were old enough to be their mothers or grandmothers. Finally, and worst of all to many, was the way the clients were treated: worker turnover was almost 100% each year, so there frequently weren’t enough workers available to care for the clients. This resulted in clients going days or longer with no care, laying in their own waste, hungry, dehydrated, their bed sores getting infected. Workers also frequently had to bring their own gloves, soap, detergent, diapers, food, bandages, antiseptic, and other essentials that the company didn’t provide.

Even though only seven workers came, it was an encouraging first organizing committee meeting. There were energetic songs and chants and folks had even brought donuts and pastry for the potluck breakfast. Everyone present voted yes to organize a union at McMaid!

Irma and Doris Gould, another worker contacted at the check pickup, had helped to run the first meeting and as the meeting came to close, Mary, an older woman who had been silent most of the meeting, taking it all in, spitting tobacco juice into an empty coffee cup, finally spoke up:

“Well, where do we all sign up and pay our dues?”

Recognition Action – Demanding Recognition From The Boss!

They set a recognition action for the next week. A recognition action, pioneered by Local 1199, the national hospital workers’ union, utilizes a little-known provision of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) permitting an employer to directly recognize the union based on a showing of interest of employees signing a union petition or authorization cards. An employer almost always refuses to recognize the union, preferring to stall and delay and hope to defeat an organizing drive. But the collective action of the workers marching to and through the employer’s offices and demanding the employer or his representatives recognize the union builds tremendous worker strength, solidarity, power –– and fun –– and puts the employer on notice that the workers want their union and will not be intimidated.

The workers voted at the first organizing committee meeting to organize a recognition action at McMaid’s offices the following payday.  They gathered a large crowd of members and supporters –– many who had already signed union cards –– outside the company’s offices when most workers came to pick up their checks. Everyone was officially off the clock, so the company couldn’t discipline them.

When Irma and Doris gave the signal, they marched in step into the company’s office chanting, “We’re Fired Up, We Won’t Take It No More!” and demanded to see the big boss, George.

George, a sad-faced, middle-aged white man, came out from his office in the rear of the building but refused to talk or meet or even read the recognition letter they wanted him to sign. They started chanting: “Sign It George, Sign It! Sign It George, Sign It!” He retreated into his office and they followed. Marching after him, they continued to chant, “Sign it George, Sign it!” George scurried into his office and locked the door, causing Doris to make a stand in front of his door, turn, and read off the litany of their demands ending it with, “And we don’t want any of you all calling us your girls no more!” This was aimed towards the supervisors cowering at their desks.

With that, they marched outside just as the police arrived and held an impromptu meeting. George then came running out demanding that the police arrest the workers and their organizer, but the officer in charge said he couldn’t do anything because “they were within their rights” to protest outside. That caused the assembled workers to hoot and holler even more and tell George to go inside while they held their own meeting. For once, instead of walking away from the company’s office alone, with barely enough to survive, they had taken action and spoken up as a group and felt their power!

Spirits were high as they laid out the plan leading up to the election, but even more challenges lay ahead.

The Company Reacts – A Turn For The Worse

The company wasted no time reacting, following their own $200-per hour union busting consultant’s plan. At the next check pickup they illegally stationed supervisors out front to spy and see who was signing up with the union. They also put out flyers warning workers not to talk to the “Union Man” or to sign a card.

Then an even bigger setback arose. One of the organizers, who had collected over 30 more cards from workers, jumped on a bus to bring his cards back to the union hall in an old printing warehouse in the south Loop. While riding the bus to the hall he became sick with nausea, jumped off the bus, and threw up in the gutter. It was only then he realized that he’d left the 30 new cards on the bus! Despite many calls to the CTA, those cards were never found.

The organizing committee members vowed to re-sign the workers and gathered at the next check pickup with more members and organizers borrowed from ACORN and the national ULU.  But the company’s “don’t sign” campaign was having an effect: some who’d signed the card last week wouldn’t re-sign, and one or two that the supervisors had interrogated asked for their cards back. Not to be stopped, they still collected a bunch of cards from newer workers.

Then things got even worse: the company canceled the check pickup, totally cutting access to their coworkers.

Filing At The Labor Board – Crunch Time At McMaid

After McMaid refused to recognize the union and canceled the check pickup, the workers voted to file a petition at the Labor Board for a union representation election. At the Labor Board, McMaid lied to the Labor Board agents and tried to pad the employee list to make it look like the union didn’t have the majority or required 30% for a union election. McMaid claimed they had over 600 employees instead of the 150-200 workers the union estimated.

But by reviewing the payroll records, they proved McMaid had only 200 workers total.

Despite the smaller list, the government’s Board agent still told them they were short on cards and only gave them 48 hours to get 7 more cards – ONLY 48 HOURS TO GET 7 MORE CARDS!

So, it was crunch time at McMaid. They had to win. Their backs were against the wall!

Since the check pickup was canceled, the brave workers on the organizing committee –– Irma Sherman, Doris Gould, Juanita Hill, Betty Brown, Mary Williamson, and others –– signed up to house visit their coworkers on their time off that weekend.

The few remaining worker contacts were mostly in the projects: Cabrini-Green high and low-rises, the Robert Taylor high rises, and others.

After spending all day caring for their consumers and their own families, they went with the organizer through the projects, climbed the stairs, knocked on doors and found Miss Lee Ora, then Mrs. Glenn, then Mrs. Bey, who eagerly signed the union card and walked with them to meet other McMaid workers they knew in the building to sign up.

When their 48 hours were up that following Monday at 5pm, they went to the Labor Board with 8 cards. The Board agent checked them against his list.

They made it, all those visits paid off and they had enough cards for the election! The election was set for December 16, 1983, the beginning of one of the coldest winters in Chicago history.

Election Set, Company Attacks

But the company’s campaign was just getting started and they brought their A-game.

Over the weeks leading up to the election, they held paid captive audience meetings where they showed anti-union videos and pounded on the workers with fearful diatribes about strikes, high union dues, union racism and discrimination, union violence and corruption, and more.  They sent out mailings and flyers attached to workers’ paychecks with anti-union messages. They held one-on-one meetings with Irma, Doris, and other member leaders in an attempt to turn them against the union.

The campaign was having an effect and the workers fighting to unionize were losing some of their yeses.  The election would be close, so house visits by McMaid workers to their coworkers would be the key to winning.

They instituted their own “VOTE YES” campaign with members flyering outside the newly reinstated check pickups, calling all eligible voters, and house visiting with organizers and other volunteers all over the city to counteract the company’s campaign and get out their more positive message of wage and benefit increases, paid time off, health insurance, and the right to be treated with dignity and respect.

They contrasted the company’s profits, workers being treated without dignity and respect, their racism, sexism, and the skimming of the state’s reimbursement rate into the company’s pockets instead of the workers’.  And they started fighting back at the mandatory “captive audience” meetings by taking some of them over and using them to amplify the union’s message.

And in their most popular mailing, called “Why We’re Voting Yes,” they had several pages of workers’ quotes with their names underneath explaining why they were voting YES for the union. The mailer went out right before the vote and was distributed outside the company offices on the day of the vote.

House Visits, Part Two, To Counteract Company Campaign

The committee members mailed, phone banked, and most importantly, housevisited as many workers as they could, keeping a running total of their yeses, nos, and maybes on newsprint on the wall of the union hall.

With just days to go until the election, Juanita Hill, a middle-aged member from the Southside, loaded into her organizer’s cramped VW Beetle to visit the few remaining unidentified voters. After hours of driving around the South and West sides of the city in -16 degree weather in the unheated Beetle with a hole in its floor, they found three workers: one yes, one no, and one maybe. Not great numbers for a day’s work and not encouraging for the election looming just days away. Their last visit of the night was with a young woman named Connie. Connie had three children and her electricity was turned off. She and her three children were huddled in their kitchen with pots of water boiling on the stove and the oven turned on with the door opened, furnishing the apartment with just a little heat and seeing by candle light and flashlight. When they finished the visit, Connie stood up, retrieved her purse, and counted out $5 for the joining fee and another $5 for the first month’s dues. Despite her own financial difficulties and utility shutoff, she felt so optimistic about the union that she was willing to join and pay her dues! That visit kept Juanita and her organizer a little warmer all the way home.

The Vote

Despite the company’s vicious anti-union campaign, Juanita, Irma, Doris, Mary, and their coworkers voted in their election on December 16, 1983.  Temperatures of -18 degrees with a wind chill of -50 degrees greeted the workers as they went in to pick up their checks and vote in the NLRB-supervised election held on the company’s premises. Irma, Juanita, Doris, and other leaders flyered out front in shifts, periodically sneaking into a corner restaurant foyer down the street from Mc Maid to warm up between shifts. Rides were arranged for voters who couldn’t get into work that day.

However, because a portion of the workforce voted by mail the Labor Board impounded the ballots and they were not counted until early January 1984 when all the mail was returned. When the ballots were counted, the McMaid workers won their union by a count of 107-76! ULU Local 880’s first representation election victory in Chicago!

Lessons Learned

The McMaid campaign became the template for future private and public sector homecare organizing drives. The importance of an empowered organizing committee was clear, it allowed the workers to make decisions that reflected their own experiences and brought the fire of their real stakes. The leaders met the workers where they were at, from check pickups and home visits to captive audience meetings and in-service trainings. And they engaged workers all along the way, bringing them to direct actions that challenged and exposed the boss, and ensuring that they had rides to get there in the first place.

The campaign also moved fast. Workers were asked to pitch in dues early, which created buy-in and commitment, and they filed for an election at 30%, which gave them momentum and quick access to the complete list of employees as mandated by the National Labor Board. This navigation of bureaucracy was key; being aware of state laws and the tactics of employers, like inflating the number of workers, allowed the workers to outmaneuver the boss and help create one of the largest locals of Black and brown workers in the country.

Homecare workers, who once earned as low as $1 an hour to $3.50 per hour, today earn an average of $17.25 an hour and are currently bargaining for $25 an hour plus retirement for this vital work. In addition, they’ve won paid health coverage, paid training, paid overtime, paid holidays, paid sick days, pandemic pay, and many other benefits. Still not enough, but closer than ever to living wage jobs.

SEIU Healthcare, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas (HCIIMK), Local 880’s successor local, is the largest union of any union in the Midwest, representing over 90,000 workers providing vital homecare, childcare, and healthcare to hundreds of thousands of people across Illinois and the Midwest every day.

All because of the courage and commitment of Irma, Doris, Juanita, and many others who dared to organize their union in Chicago 40 years ago.

Keith Kelleher was the founder of ULU Local 880 (1983-5), then SEIU Local 880 (1985-2008) and then president (2008-2017) of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas (HCIIMK). Once the smallest local union, it is now the largest local union in Chicago, Cook County.

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