Over the years, many people have asked me: “how did you build the union from only 7 members in 1983, to representing over 90,000 today? How did you organize really low-wage workers like homecare and childcare providers, when no one thought that was possible? How did you do it without dues checkoff, hand collecting dues – did you really do that? How did you learn to do that?”
Most times I would just say that I was trained as a community organizer and a labor organizer by ACORN and ULU (United Labor Unions), and we were trained to collect dues the first day you went out on the doors in our community and labor organizing drives. That’s all true – but I would never tell them who really taught me how to collect dues – my mother!
I recently lost my mom, but I remember this like it was yesterday.
My mother was a child of the depression and World War II, who grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City and in Brooklyn. She got married at age 19 and had 8 kids by the time she was 32!
When i was a kid, my mother was the treasurer of the Holy Name Society in our parish and one of her jobs was to collect the dues from all the women in the parish. So every month or so, my mother and I would load up in our car and drive to the homes of the Holy Name members.
My mother would drive, and I would be the collector – as she pulled up at each person’s house, it would be my job to jump out of the car and run up to the door of the house and collect the money, usually in a church envelope, and then i would run back to the car and write down in her dues book how much each family had given.
If it was in our more middle class neighborhood, almost everyone would have the envelope ready and the right amount of money would be in there, but when we got into the wealthier parts of town, some of them wouldn’t have the right amount or it would be much less than they committed, or they wouldn’t have anything at all!
You should have heard my mother!
“Did Mrs McCarthy give what she promised?
She only gave some spare change!
Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Look at the fancy house, look at the fancy cars! Her husband works on Wall Street! That is a sin, that is a mortal sin! I’m going to get Father Walsh to talk with her – she’s got some nerve, with the house and the cars!
Only giving spare change to the church, but then on Sunday they’re sitting right up in front of the Monsignor, with the fancy clothes and the mink! it’s a sin, a mortal sin!”
She would go on and on and, at the time, I would roll my eyes, and pray that the next house would be the last, but then later, I’d tell funny stories – complete with her Brooklyn accent – to my brothers and sisters about what my mother said about the other members of the parish as we collected dues together.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I learned a lot from her about about accountability, and about justice – that you should pay your dues and your fair share – or there would be hell to pay!
To my parents and many in their generation, the church, like a family or a union, was a “haven in a heartless world.” It was an immigrant church for members who went there not only for spiritual healing and ceremony but for family and social events, for religious education, as well as a little economic help like finding a job, and charity for those who needed it. When we were younger, she would entertain us with stories about how she met my father at a CYO (Catholic youth organization) dance and how they would travel by bus and train throughout Brooklyn to various parishes to dance and socialize with their friends.
Not supporting the parish and the good works they did really was seen as a sin – she wasn’t kidding.
So later, when I decided to be a community and union organizer, she must have infused me with the same zeal that she had as we drove through our town many years before. that’s how I really learned to collect dues.
It was invaluable training for my future as an organizer.
And that’s how i saw it – we had to collect dues because no one was going to fund us to organize poor people into unions. We were organizing the lowest wage homecare and childcare providers in the city – many who were legally classified as “independent contractors” and paid minimum and subminimum wages of only $1, when the federal minimum wage was only $3.35 an hour.
We had to have that same zeal and determination my mother had when we collected church dues together. We didn’t have dues checkoff and not much chance to get formal union recognition, so we collected dues, just like my mother taught me – with a lot of help from my trainers at ACORN and ULU – and we acted like a union, even if we didn’t have formal union recognition.
I remember feeling so good at my very first meeting of the Chicago Homecare Workers’ Union/ULU Local 880 in the basement of the United Methodist Temple in downtown Chicago – there was only a handful of workers there, like 7, and most had joined, paying their $5 joining fee and $5 monthly dues in dollars, quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies. Mostly poor, middle-aged black women, unfolding wrinkled dollars from their purses, and digging change out of the bottom; and I and one of our leaders would enter their name in our dues book, give them their membership card and membership button and packet – this scene was repeated thousands of times in church basements, apartments, union halls, and living rooms all over Chicago and the state of Illinois, until we had built enough power to win wage and benefit increases, formal union recognition, union contracts and dues checkoff.
The union has grown from only 7 members in church basements in 1983, to representing over 90,000 workers today, in healthcare, childcare, nursing homes, and hospitals – this despite attacks by right wing organizations contesting the rights of these workers to even have a union.
So today, as we face larger legal attacks on labor like the upcoming “Janus decision,” contesting the right to have a union shop in the public sector – and many other similar attacks on workers’ rights like dues checkoff; i think of what my mother said as we went door-to-door trying to collect dues from wealthy parishioners – “…it’s a sin, a mortal sin!…”
Keith Kelleher is the former president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana Missouri/Kansas(HCIIMK), the Midwest’s largest local union and the 7th largest local of the Service Employees International Union(SEIU). Formed in 2008 by uniting three locals, SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana represents 91,000 healthcare, home care, nursing home and child care workers fighting for higher standards of quality care and quality jobs. Prior to leading SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana, Keith was Head Organizer of SEIU Local 880 where, under his leadership, the local pioneered the organization of home care, child care and other low-wage workers—growing the local from just 7 members in 1983 to over 68,000 members by 2008, and winning living wages and first-ever healthcare benefits for tens of thousands of Illinois workers. Prior to SEIU Local 880, Keith was head organizer of United Labor Unions (ULU) Local 880, which began homecare organizing in Chicago in 1983 and merged with SEIU in 1985. A labor and community organizer and leader for over 37 years, Keith also served as an SEIU International Executive Board Vice-President from June, 2008 – June, 2017.