Caring for California, part 1: The beginning of a movement

May is Labor History Month, and this year we are celebrating the contributions of organized caregivers to build and protect a quality homecare program in California. This is the first post in a four-part series. Read the full Caring for California series: Part 1   Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4

Part 1: The Beginning of a Movement

Prior to the establishment of the In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program in 1973, the options for seniors and people with disabilities who needed long-term care were incredibly limited. The Aid to the Totally Disabled (ATD) program—which provided a monthly stipend of up to $300 for attendant care—was ending, and many faced removal from their homes and institutionalization. People with disabilities and their allies organized, rallying at the Capitol to demand a better, more encompassing, and client-directed program, a program that would put disabled people in control of their own care and allow them to live with dignity and respect in their homes and communities.

After a long battle, then-Governor Ronald Reagan finally signed AB 134 into law, and the program we now know as IHSS was created. It was a major milestone for the disability rights movement in California.

But this was just the first step towards improving quality of life for seniors and people with disabilities in California, and one major problem remained: because care providers were only making minimum wage and had no health benefits, turnover was high. Seniors and people with disabilities had a hard time finding and keeping quality caregivers because of the poor working conditions set by IHSS.

UDWA/AFSCME Local 3930 founders Ken Msemaji and Fahari Jeffers (left) with mentor Cesar Chavez.

UDWA/AFSCME Local 3930 founders Ken Msemaji and Fahari Jeffers (left) with mentor Cesar Chavez

Due to the nature of our work, caregivers were isolated from each other, and we had no real voice to fight for better wages and benefits. At the same time that IHSS was being established, labor leader Cesar Chavez was recruiting and training labor advocates to build the domestic workers movement in California. In 1977 his followers in San Diego, guided by his vision, formed a committee to organize California’s homecare workers. They believed it was possible for homecare workers to build collective power when no one else did, and in 1979 they won their first contract for homecare providers as the United Domestic Workers of America (UDW).

The first union of caregivers ever, UDW was also the third union in the nation to be founded by people of color.

  • 1973: Ronald Reagan signs AB 134 into law, creating the program we now know as IHSS
  • 1977: UDW organizing committee formed
  • 1979: UDW wins first contract for homecare workers, marking the beginning of organized homecare

 

Cesar Chavez at the first contract signing for UDW homecare workers in San Diego in 1979.

Cesar Chavez at the first contract signing for UDW homecare workers in San Diego in 1979.

Continue reading Part 2: Building a better IHSS program

 

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