On Friday, September 20th healthcare workers from across Minnesota came together to celebrate 80 years of improving people’s lives, while welcoming in a new wave of workers. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Minnesota celebrated its 80th anniversary, bringing in leaders from across the state and country to honor the oldest healthcare union in America.
“Eighty years ago, the people who cleaned the hospitals, mended the linens and cared for patients were mostly women and people of color – the work they did was not seen as real work. When Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in the 1930s, they left these workers out of the law,” said Jamie Gulley, President of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota.
“But eighty years ago, something special happened here in the Twin Cities. These workers – women, many of them women of color – joined together to fight against low pay, lack of benefits, and most of all, the lack of respect that accompanied their work. They formed a union and won voluntary recognition to create the first healthcare workers’ union in America,” continued Gulley.
Mary Kay Henry, the International President of SEIU, joined in the celebration. Henry, the first woman elected to lead SEIU, began her career as a union organizer with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota.
During her visit, Henry welcomed the personal care attendants (PCAs) and other home care workers who participated in the union assembly as they prepare to launch their organizing drive to form a union with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota later this fall.
“For too long this vital occupation, upon which the health and independence of millions depend, has been treated as marginal and casual work to be performed under poverty conditions,” said Henry. “This has been so, even as the occupation has become among the fastest growing and most vitally important within the American health care system.
“I welcome these workers’ efforts to make home care jobs into the good quality jobs that we need to get our economy moving again and to ensure that all Americans have access to the quality care they deserve.”
Home care workers spent part of the day laying out their vision for their union, which they shared during a brief press conference.
“The PCA program is a blessing when it works. But in my years as a PCA, I see that most of the time it’s not working very well because of the high turnover and the lack of training opportunities. I have met and talked with many other PCAs— the problems are affecting all of us,” said Shaquonica Johnson, a home care worker from St. Paul. “I want a union so that if my family ever needs to rely on a PCA in the future, there will be a lot of good, well trained, reliable people to draw from.”
“Through our union, we are going to make sure that our work is respected,” said Jane Conrad, a home care worker from Richmond. “We provide direct support services so people can stay in their homes, but we also need to earn a respectable wage so we can afford our homes.”
“I’ve worked hard as a disability advocate to ensure that everyone who needs self-directed support services has access to them,” said Nikki Villavicencio, a recipient of home care services. “But no matter how hard we fight, our services will always be in danger as long as our PCAs are expected to work for low wages with no benefits, little access to training and no voice to change those things. If my workers have a better quality of life, my family and I have a better quality of life.”
Dozens of PCAs and other direct support workers said they are continuing to talk with other workers across the state as they prepare to launch their statewide organizing drive later this fall. Self-directed home care workers in public programs recently won the right to form a union under state law.
“We are proud of the history we have of being leaders in the healthcare industry,” said Gulley. “Today, that history continues with the thousands of home care workers around the state who are working to form a union. Home care workers provide care for our seniors and people with disabilities. Yet today they have the same struggles the hospital workers who founded our unions faced 80 years ago – low pay, lack of benefits and lack of respect. We look forward to their inclusion in our great tradition of improving people’s lives.”
SEIU Healthcare Minnesota unites more than 15,000 healthcare and long-term care workers in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and home care throughout the state of Minnesota. SEIU represents more than 30,000 members across Minnesota and is a powerful voice working to improve the lives of all Minnesotans.