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Organizing Still a Labor of Love

August 14, 1989|H.G. REZA | Times Staff Writer

A decade ago, when Ken-Seaton Msemaji and Fahari Jeffers organized a union to represent domestic workers, their friends and supporters applauded the idea but wondered if the veteran labor organizers had finally taken on an impossible task.

With help from the United Farm Workers union and Catholic church groups, the couple organized a small nucleus from a largely invisible work force, composed mainly of poorly educated minority women who earned minimum wage. Throughout the history of the U.S. labor movement, nobody had ever succeeded in organizing housekeepers into a union.

But Jeffers and Msemaji were determined, and they began their venture in San Diego, a conservative city not known as a labor stronghold. In April, 1979, the couple and 150 members founded the United Domestic Workers union at a convention in Southeast San Diego.

"Cesar (Chavez) planted the seed in 1976 . . . He was looking for someone to organize domestic workers," said Msemaji, 44, who was an activist with a black community group that at the time was helping the UFW with a statewide farm workers initiative.

Msemaji and Jeffers, 35, threw themselves into the effort to organize the union with the same fervor that drove them to adopt 16 children, many of them undocumented aliens, in the following years. Fourteen of the couple's adopted children are Latino and two are black.

"Our struggle to put the union together and form our family kind of paralleled each other," Msemaji said. "When we started both, we didn't have any money and nobody thought we could do it . . . We became a union and a family under unusual circumstances."

Started Recruiting in 1978

With help from the UFW, which sent several organizers to help the fledgling union, the UDW began recruiting members in 1978. Many of the first members were recruited at dawn, as they rode to work on city buses, and at San Ysidro, where organizers met Mexican women who crossed the border for housekeeping jobs on the U.S. side.

Today, while the independent union's membership is still largely minority women, about 33% of its membership is made up of white housekeepers.

"Most people thought it was an impossible thing to do . . . Originally, we envisioned forming a union for maids and housecleaners. After a while, we realized that in order to organize them, we had to have a stronger base of support," Msemaji said.

In order to build a support base from which to grow, the UDW began focusing on home attendants from the government-funded In Home Support Services program. The IHSS program, designed to provide home care for the aged and disabled poor who cannot afford convalescent care, is financed by the state and administered by the counties.

However, Jeffers, who is also an attorney, admitted that the first results were more humbling than encouraging. The union's first election in September, 1979, at a local nursing home, was lost by one vote. It was more than a year later, in November, 1980, before the UDW signed its first collective bargaining agreement, covering 2,000 home attendant workers contracted by San Diego County.

Nine years later, the union's membership has grown modestly to 5,000 workers--there are about 130,000 home attendants in the state--but its influence has been felt throughout California. Currently, its paid membership is composed exclusively of workers who work for companies that contract with California counties for in-home care for aged and disabled people. The overwhelming majority of home attendants in California are "private providers," who do not have union representation.

In addition to fighting for workers' rights, Jeffers is also fighting a more personal battle with a debilitating disease. Jeffers suffers from myasthenia gravis, a disease of the muscles that strikes its victims in the form of mild twitches and which can make chewing, swallowing and breathing difficult.

The disease has hospitalized Jeffers on several occasions, but she refuses to be conquered by it.

"It's not a disease that has a cure. It's a constant threat, but I can overcome it," she said.

Home attendants represented by the UDW earn about $5 an hour, but their benefits include paid vacations and a health plan. In comparison, private providers usually earn minimum wage--$4.25 an hour--without benefits.

Although the UDW's roots are planted firmly in the progressive labor movement, the union has been able to survive in an era that has sent many unions reeling largely because of Jeffers and Msemaji's insistence on developing bipartisan support on issues.

Diverse Group of Supporters

Through the years, UDW supporters have included politicians of diverse political views, such as Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), Assembly Minority Leader Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton), Sen. Larry Stirling (R-San Diego) and conservative San Diego businessman James C. Schmidt, vice chairman of the board of Great American Bank.

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