LOW-LEVEL LABORERS GAIN STRENGTH Service union raises workers' pay, hopes September 2, 2007 BY MARGARITA BAUZA FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER For four years, Maria Mercado scratched by on help from family as she cared for her mother, who had an aneurysm while visiting Detroit from Mexico. Today, Mercado still cares for her mother full time, but her conditions have improved. She's being paid by the state for her work, is taking classes to get her general equivalency diploma and hopes to regain the health insurance she lost after she quit her job at a steel plant when her mother fell ill in 2003. This Labor Day weekend, Mercado, 40, credits those life improvements to joining the Service Employees International Union, the fastest-growing labor union in North America, with nearly 1.9 million workers in health care and janitorial and public services. The union helped her get more pay, sponsors the GED classes and works on insurance for home-care workers. As manufacturing jobs and membership in unions like the UAW decline, service jobs have exploded and so has membership in service such unions as the SEIU. It is this segment of the workforce that needs the traditional protection of labor unions, said Michigan State University labor relations professor Ellen Kossek. Its members work the worst hours for the least pay in the poorest conditions. "This is the changing workforce," Kossek said. "Service workers are the people who work split shifts and are barely getting enough hours to get benefits." Many are among the 43 million Americans who don't have health insurance. They tend to be women with critical family demands, who often work two jobs, Kossek said. "Labor had, until now, overlooked these jobs," she said. The statistics illustrate the story of the change in American jobs. Manufacturing jobs fell from 17.6 million in 1997 to 14.1 million in 2006, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. During the same period, the number of service jobs in the country rose from 100 million to 114 million. Since 1996, the service union has nearly doubled its membership from 1 million to its current 1.9 million. Mercado, a self-proclaimed rebel who generally shuns help, said that joining SEIU has paid off. "I was feeling alone, cornered, sad," she said. Learning that others were in the same boat has made her hardship more tolerable. "I found out that there were other people like me ... that I wasn't alone." Nationwide, growing membership and its diverse needs have caused the union to split into specialty groups. Mercado is now a member of the health-care branch, which has its headquarters on Fourth Street in Detroit. The group has more than 55,000 members and formed this month when it merged 40,000 home-care workers and 15,000 nurses, nursing-home workers and hospital support staff. Such changes are part of an ongoing reorganization of labor in Michigan and across the country that began when SEIU split from the AFL-CIO in 2004, a move made so it could be more aggressive about organizing, said Gerry Hudson, its executive vice president. "Numbers were slipping continuously," Hudson said. Even before the split, the service union was particularly successful at organizing new members in its industries. These workers were often women, minorities and immigrants who had low wages, said University of Illinois labor and industrial relations professor Robert Bruno. "SEIU has properly understood that the new immigrant workforce is critical, not only to the success of the labor movement, but to rebuilding a broadly distributive and just economy," Bruno said. "Like few other unions, they have aggressively made an effort to speak on behalf of new immigrant workers." Unionizing service workers isn't just about improving the lives of workers, Bruno argues. It is about creating a new middle class. Hudson is unapologetic about the zest with which organizers will continue pursuing members. Of Michigan's 391,740 health-care workers, only 55,000 are a part of the union's health-care branch. "We are aggressive, energetic. We push hard, and we're creative," Hudson said. "When no one really thought it was possible to organize home-care workers on a mass scale, we succeeded." Challenges in organizing home-care workers included high turnover rates and the lack of a set workplace. The union sidestepped those hurdles by visiting people at home, collecting signatures and passing out leaflets. The union's janitorial branch, SEIU Local 3, also is trying to build membership. The unit, which formed in 2005, represents 1,600 janitors in the Detroit area and has 9,000 members in Pittsburgh; Cleveland; Toledo; Columbus, Ohio, and Detroit. "We have a lot of room to grow, especially in the suburbs," organizer Dana Sevakis said. Local 3 city director Erica Kimble said fighting for better wages is challenging, especially in Detroit. "They can only offer so much," she said. "We're trying to tap into suburban markets." Still, the union takes pride in the fact that its ranks are growing. Last week, it organized 200 members at a metro Detroit pharmaceutical company. "I think that's significant, given how small we still are," Kimble said. Contact MARGARITA BAUZA at 313-222-6823 or email@example.com.
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