Thirty years ago this month, a small group of Chicago workers formed a union that helped ignite a labor movement across the country. The workers were largely African-American women who provided care for seniors and people with disabilities.
Because home care workers were exempt from some federal labor laws, their wages were as low as a dollar an hour. In 1983, they decided to unionize. It was one of the first unions of it’s kind in the nation.
Keith Kelleher is President of SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana. He remembers marching at the capital and hearing testimonies.
“Our president at the time said, ‘We are being paid a dollar an hour. We are grown women who have been working all of our lives.’ Later in that session they outlawed it and increased everyone from a dollar an hour to [the minimum wage] of $3.35,” Kelleher said.
The methods used in Chicago spread across the nation, according to Kelleher, but he says there is still a long way to go. In many states home care workers are still not included in the minimum wage. And in Illinois, some employers hire home care workers as private contractors to get around the minimum wage and overtime standards.
Saturday, September 6th, union leaders and home care workers will convene in Chicago to mark the union’s anniversary.
Shannon Heffernan is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @shannon_h