SEIU organizing goals: Dues and Political Clout

A little more than a year ago, Linda Etherton accepted a new job caring for her ailing mother-in-law in Etherton's Aumsville home.

Etherton works at least eight hours every day and is on call around the clock. In September, she drove her mother-in-law to Portland nine times for doctor's appointments.

Under Oregon's relative adult foster-care program, 71-year-old Sylvia Etherton gets to remain in a home setting with care provided by loved ones. The state and the federal Medicaid program save a bundle of money by keeping Sylvia out of a costly nursing home.

Linda Etherton gets paid $740 per month. "Most people in society don't consider it a job," she said. "They have no idea."

But changes are on the way. Service Employees International Union Local 503 recently scored another in a string of union-organizing victories when it convinced a majority of the state's 1,628 relative adult foster-care providers to sign union-authorization cards. That, combined with a new executive order by Gov. Ted Kulongoski, enables SEIU to commence bargaining a union contract on behalf of the care providers, said Danica Finley, SEIU Local 503 organizing director.

"The relative providers are doing it because of a special relationship with an individual or individuals," Finley said. But they desire better pay, more training and other benefits that joining together in a union can secure, she said.

Etherton hopes for all that and more. She wants some respect for her work, and to break out of her isolation.

"I've never attended a training," Etherton said. "I don't know other adult foster care people my area."

Etherton said she gets "run-around after run-around" when advocating for her mother-in-law's services.

"We're all being told different things, or we're not being told things we should know," she said.

Etherton worked a year before learning she was eligible for a mileage reimbursement.

Earlier this year, Oregon became the first state in the nation to see unionization of adult foster-care workers, Finley said. That was when SEIU organized another group of about 2,000 commercial providers. They care for up to five frail seniors or disabled people in their homes, providing nursing care around the clock.

The commercial providers operate more as in-home businesses, while the relative foster-care providers get into it for different reasons, and usually have one or two people in their homes.

Both face some similar issues, Finley said.

Unionizing the two sectors of adult foster-care providers comes a few years after SEIU unionized home-care workers. Those workers come into the homes of frail seniors and disabled people to tend to their personal needs, which allows those people to remain in their homes and neighborhoods.

In the past year or two, SEIU, along with its rival, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75, unionized home day-care operators who get state payments to serve low-income families.

Organizing such "caring professions" has expanded the notion of unionism, said Bob Bussel, director of the Labor Research and Education Center at the University of Oregon, and a labor historian. It's also helping propel SEIU to rapid growth in Oregon and nationally, he said.

It's too soon to say if the labor movement is reviving in this country, Bussel said, but he sees some trends akin to the "stirring period in labor history," when big industrial unions were forged in the 1930s.

The new union drives also give public employees unions, especially SEIU, more political clout in Oregon, Bussel said.

One sign of that: SEIU this year became the largest union in Oregon, surpassing the Oregon Education Association.


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