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An angry rift between union leaders filled the spotlight when big labor gathered last week in Chicago. But to figure out what labor’s divide might actually mean for workers and employers, look beyond the dueling press conferences and listen to the union talk at Grandma’s House, a child care center Angenita Tanner runs from her basement apartment on the city’s South Side. Tanner is one of Illinois’ 49,000 home child care workers, many self-employed, who voted overwhelmingly this spring to be represented by the Service Employees International Union. The vote capped a nine-year campaign by the SEIU, and a bitter fight with a rival union for the low-paid service workers. The workers, nearly all women and most minorities, once would have been far outside the muscle and manufacturing mainstream of organized labor. “There’s power in numbers,” said Tanner, trying to keep her voice in check as the seven children in her charge nap. “You cannot go to (the state Capitol in) Springfield by yourself and talk to senators and representatives and get heard � but if you go as part of a group, being represented as part of the masses, they’re going to listen.” The unions’ drive to sign up the child care providers — and another recent campaign in Illinois for home health aides — turned on winning higher pay and health insurance. But they also reflect the split in organized labor, one experts say could fuel increased competition by unions for workers, particularly in service industries that are becoming the economy’s mainstay. “The story of home care workers and child care workers in Illinois is a nice sort of case study of what’s been writ large in Chicago this week,” said Robert Bruno, an associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois’s Chicago campus. The SEIU leads the group of unions breaking away from the AFL-CIO umbrella federation, arguing it is past time for the struggling labor movement to focus on signing up new workers. Its rival in the Chicago campaign was the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the loudest voices for maintaining labor solidarity. The national fight is partly about the egos and ambitions of their leaders, and control of the money and power held by the AFL-CIO. It is also about how each camp would strike a balance between building membership and politicking. But the union drive in Illinois was awash in politics, proof that the split is not simply a disagreement about whether to spend money on activism or organizing. And it offers a window into the battling between unions that could give some workers not just a choice over whether to bargain as a unit, but of which union to join. Some experts say the split reminds them of 1930, when a similar rift occurred. The fierce competition between unions that followed took membership to record highs in the mid-1950s, but growth stalled following the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955. With the new split, “the constraints will come off and they’ll be in direct competition for a lot of those same people,” said David B. Lipsky, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Employers may interpret the labor infighting as disarray. But some experts say the divide could actually create more challenges for companies. The labor rift “should be a huge wake-up call for employers,” said Philip Rosen, who leads the labor practice group at Jackson Lewis, a law firm representing companies in workplace cases. “They really need to look at it and say: ‘The fight is coming to my worksite tomorrow.’” Unions are already locked in scrums for some workers, although most of those have been in the public sector. In Iowa, for example, the SEIU and AFSCME have also been competing vigorously for the right to sign up child care workers. The workers are not state employees, but run businesses paid by the state for caring for the children of lower income working parents. The faceoff is similar to the one in Illinois, where SEIU organizers have been knocking on the doors of home child care workers for most of the past decade. Chicago organizers found Tanner in 1996, not long after she’d left her job as a truant officer at a public high school. She’d set herself up as a child care provider, but a state backlog in issuing reimbursement checks left her struggling to pay bills after she’d been open about six months. She recalled crying one afternoon, explaining to her assistant why she would not be able to pay her. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang, and an organizer asked her if she’d be interested in coming to a meeting of other home care workers. As she listened to the 50 other women in that room talk about the strain of running their own centers, Tanner said she no longer felt stranded. “I felt like this is my family. These are the people I need to be around,” said Tanner, who has since become one of the campaign’s most active voices, and has traveled with the union to speak to workers and organizers in other cities. Tanner joined a union representing workers without any actual employer. They were paid by the state, but with a Republican governor disinclined to recognize a union. So the SEIU — which ironically has called for unions to focus less on lobbying and campaigning and more on organizing — worked to become a political player. It contributed more than $800,000 to the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Rod Blagojevich. It paid off when Blagojevich approved an order earlier this year allowing a union to bargain with the state on the workers’ behalf. But in stepped AFSCME, the nation’s largest union of government employees. Its organizers argued that the child care providers were part of their constituency. The two unions “both began to throw mud,” Bruno said. “They both began to demonize each other.” AFSCME stepped aside in the end, and workers chose unionization by a vote of 13,484 to 359. But the two unions’ pursuit of the child care providers hints at what could follow elsewhere. “There’s a lot of nontraditional work that’s been created in this new service economy � that’s where labor should definitely be casting its net,” Bruno said. “But if it’s not played out right, you could see fanatical dog-eat-dog competition.” Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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