Departing Union Rips AFL-CIO on Recruiting
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're going to hear more now about one of the unions that's breaking away. The Service Employees International Union says it wants more emphasis on recruiting new members. Jerome Vaughn of Detroit Public Radio reports on how that union works to expand.
JEROME VAUGHN reporting:
Virginia Burton sits on the porch of her small, well-kept home near an industrial district on Detroit's southwest side. She's just finished getting dinner together for her granddaughter and her special live-in guests, but she's a little frustrated.
Ms. VIRGINIA BURTON (Home Care Worker): The money they give you is ridiculous. It's absolutely ridiculous. Let's see, how can I put this? It's not enough, it's not enough for basic needs.
VAUGHN: Burton is a home-care worker. She takes care of two developmentally disabled patients in her home. Both are elderly, both have special needs. Burton cares for them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and for this work, she receives roughly $520 per month from the state of Michigan. Burton is one of thousands of workers in Michigan who care for those who can't care for themselves. She attends to their basic needs, but she says the state isn't taking care of hers. Burton says that's why her interest was piqued a few months ago when an organizer from the Service Employees International Union began distributing information at the group homes in the area. After talking with SEIU officials, she said it was clear that they could help her find a level of stability she doesn't have right now.
Ms. BURTON: I would like to have retirement. I wouldn't like to work till I'm 62 or 65 and have nothing coming, you know, nothing coming, no sick time, no vacation time; no, just work, just work, work, and when you're dead you're done, you know. So with the union, I feel I--I know I'll have something to look forward to. I will.
VAUGHN: The SEIU has had a good deal of success in organizing home-care workers like Burton, as well as day-care workers and janitors. More than 41,000 Michigan home caregivers voted to join the union in April.
Marianne Woods is the program director for SEIU Local 517 in Saginaw, Michigan. She's working to recruit new members who work for Head Start programs around the state. Woods says the AFL-CIO and other unions are losing their political clout because they're losing members. She says the SEIU has a simple solution to that problem.
Mr. MARIANNE WOODS (SEIU Local 517): Organized labor in the AFL have always had a pretty strong voice amongst the rank and file in voting for people that represent workers. Our problem is, is that our rank and file is shrinking; therefore, our voice isn't as significant as it was in the past, and what we need to do is make it significant again.
VAUGHN: But some analysts say that's too simple an explanation. Rick Hurd is a professor at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He says the SEIU is having success because it's recruiting in the service sector, where the number of jobs is growing. Hurd says the tactics aren't as effective in sectors that are losing jobs, such as manufacturing.
Professor RICK HURD (Cornell University): GM, Ford and Chrysler have been reducing employment for the past 20 years at a relatively steady pace, and so they have a situation where spending more money on organizing is almost like just running faster on the treadmill. It isn't like it necessarily gets them anywhere.
VAUGHN: Hurd says AFL-CIO leaders must recognize that if they want labor to stop shrinking and start growing again, they're going to have to make changes.
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VAUGHN: Adding members like Virginia Burton is the step the Service Employees hope will keep their union strong. She says her membership will allow her to do her job better.
Ms. BURTON: How important is it? They're a human being, and they have a right to live and to enjoy life, be appreciated. You know, none of us is any lesser or any greater person because we are mentally or physically challenged. It's just that that's their lot. That's the straw they pulled. But their life is important.
VAUGHN: Burton says having the ability to take care of herself helps her take care of others.
For NPR News, I'm Jerome Vaughn in Detroit.
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