An angry rift between union leaders filled the spotlight when big labor gathered this week in Chicago. But to figure out what labor’s divide might actually mean for workers and employers, look beyond the dueling press conferences and listen to the union talk at Grandma’s House, a child-care center Angenita Tanner runs from her basement apartment on the city’s South Side.
Tanner is one of Illinois’ 49,000 home child-care workers, many self-employed, who voted overwhelmingly this spring to be represented by the Service Employees International Union.
The vote capped a nine-year campaign by the SEIU, and a bitter fight with a rival union for the low-paid service workers. The workers, nearly all women and most minorities, once would have been far outside the muscle and manufacturing mainstream of organized labor.
“There’s power in numbers,” said Tanner. “You cannot go to (the state Capitol in) Springfield by yourself and talk to senators and representatives and get heard … but if you go as part of a group, being represented as part of the masses, they’re going to listen.”
The unions’ drive to sign up the child-care providers turned on winning higher pay and health insurance. But they also reflect the split in organized labor, one experts say could fuel increased competition by unions for workers, particularly in service industries that are becoming the economy’s mainstay.
The SEIU leads the group of unions breaking away from the AFL-CIO umbrella federation, arguing it is past time for the struggling labor movement to focus on signing up new workers.
The national fight is partly about the egos and ambitions of their leaders and control of the money and power held by the AFL-CIO. It is also about how each camp would strike a balance between building membership and politicking.
With the new split, “the constraints will come off and they’ll be in direct competition for a lot of those same people,” said David B. Lipsky, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Employers may interpret the labor infighting as disarray. But some experts say the divide could actually create more challenges for companies.
The labor rift “should be a huge wake-up call for employers,” said Philip Rosen, who leads the labor practice group at Jackson Lewis LLP, a law firm representing companies in workplace cases. “They really need to look at it and say: ‘The fight is coming to my work site tomorrow.’ “
Unions are already locked in scrums for some workers, although most of those have been in the public sector.
In Iowa, for example, the SEIU and AFSCME have also been competing vigorously for the right to sign up child-care workers. The workers are not state employees, but run businesses paid by the state for caring for the children of lower income working parents.
The face-off is similar to the one in Illinois, where SEIU organizers have been knocking on the doors of home child care workers for most of the past decade.
Chicago organizers found Tanner in 1996, not long after she’d left her job as a truant officer at a public high school. She’d set herself up as a child-care provider, but a state backlog in issuing reimbursement checks left her struggling to pay bills after she’d been open about six months.
She recalled crying one afternoon, explaining to her assistant why she would not be able to pay her. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang, and an organizer asked her if she’d be interested in coming to a meeting of other home care workers.
As she listened to the 50 other women in that room talk about the strain of running their own centers, Tanner said she no longer felt stranded. “I felt like this is my family. These are the people I need to be around.”