Volume 8, No. 2 February 2021
WWHP Recognizes and Celebrates Black History Month
In this issue
• Activist/Actor Alma Washington In Her Own Words

• SEIU Nursing Home Workers on Strike!
Alma Washington, an Activist/Actor Tells Her Story
An activist focuses on real life, an actor imitates life.

Being a strong advocate for labor unions, women’s rights and having a passion for historical women inspired me to write a one woman show about Lucy Parsons. Her passion as a labor leader for the Chicago working class in the 1880’s and her fight for the 8-hour day endeared her to me.

During the 1990’s, the Illinois Humanities Council developed a program called Road Scholars in which an array of artistic programs would tour the state. Les Orear, then president of the Illinois Labor History Society and Bill Adelman, Vice President, encouraged me to submit the Lucy Parsons play and it was accepted. Having no car, touring the state by train, bus or cab was indeed an adventure. Once the Amtrak train was delayed hours because of a snow blizzard. The housing varied from being a guest in someone’s home to high end hotels and low end motels where I felt it was necessary to put a chair under the door knob for security. When Sept.11, 2001 occurred I was headed to Springfield for a performance. Only a few people attended the program that evening, everyone wanted to be home with their family, including me.

For their annual event, the Working Women’s History Project asked me to write a play about Addie Wyatt using an interview with her conducted by Joan and Ken Morris. Addie was a 20th century activist for labor, civil rights and women’s movements. She endeavored, during her workplace accomplishments, to bring the labor movement and Black Women’s role in it to the forefront. The play" Life Can Be Better" has been well received. 

An activist is usually involved in labor and unions. My unions are SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Radio and Television Artists). I serve on the Chicago Local Board and as member of the National SAG-AFTRA Conservatory Workshop. A.E.A. (Actors’ Equity Association) is the theater union. I’m a delegate from A.E.A. to the Chicago Federation of Labor meetings. I also serve on the boards of the Illinois Labor History Society, Working Women’s History Project and as a member of CLUW (Coalition of Labor Union Women).

As an actor I have appeared in numerous television shows and performed at various Chicago theaters. Most recently I played Ida B. Wells in a ZOOM production of "Radical Ideas!: Women and the Vote! ", written by Mary Bonnett along with fellow actors Brigid Duffy and Connie Foster.

My first award was from the Illinois Labor History Society: they inducted me into The Union Hall of Honor. The Nelson Algren Committee gave me an award in appreciation of exceptional service to the community. The Olga Madar UAW Award for Leadership and Contributions to the Labor Movement was given to me by the Chicago Chapter of CLUW. 

One of my favorite evenings was presenting "Life Can Be Better" in the presence of Addie Wyatt and her family. For years she worked tirelessly for the labor movement and was an avid supporter of labor unions. She often said, “Each of us is a link in this great union chain that stretches around the world. I will try every day to keep my link, united, active and strong.” 

Alma Washington is a board member of Working Women’s History Project.
We’re Going On Strike!  
by Gwen Vaughn
What do we want? A contract! When do you want it? Now! What do we want? Safe staffing! When do you want It? Now!! Those chants echoed across the state of Illinois from eleven Infinity nursing home workers! Sealing every chant by saying if we don’t get it! Shut it down!! And that’s exactly what they did! 

These workers are members of SEIUIIMK, the Midwest local of Service Employees International Union. This Midwest local represents workers in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas who are homecare, childcare, hospital and nursing home workers who are predominantly women of color. It is especially important that we highlight these women during black history month. Black women have been on the front line for centuries fighting for equality and equity! 

The nursing bargaining unit consists of over 700 essential workers who are CNA’s, receptionists, Activity Aides, receptionists, and housekeeping, laundry and dietary workers. These workers are responsible for the care of seniors and people with disabilities. They are the ones that keep their facilities up and running like clockwork: changing throughout three shifts, and reporting to one another what care or follow-up is needed to keep the facility and the residents safe.

These workers are a force to be reckoned with! Not only are they facing workplace issues; two of the 11 Infinity homes had the most deaths and COVID-19 cases of any other facility in the state.  It was alarming, with a record number of residents dying! They fought hard to be treated with dignity and respect and had to fight even harder to receive the proper PPE that they needed to be safe while providing quality care and keeping their residents safe. Also important was keeping their jobs to support themselves and their families. The day finally came when they said enough is enough and we’re going on strike! They said they we’re fired up and can’t take no more!

They took it to the streets as the days began before daylight, fighting back the bitter cold frigid elements. Everyone was dressed in layers, marching and chanting trying to keep warm. They were determined to have their demands met! They used technology on the strike lines, encouraging one another to stand strong and saying we’re in this together. The technology was an amazing way to stay connected. They used their smartphones to FaceTime one another from the different locations to encourage one another to continue to stand strong. There was a tremendous number of testimonies shared across media channels and on the front line. Their message went viral across this whole country! People from all walks of life joined them every day on the strike line. City council members, state legislators, others union sisters and brothers, clergy and community organizations from near and far came out in solidarity. Some provided warm drinks, food, music, hand warmers, and joined in with the chants. Most importantly the workers felt as though they were be supported. 
Marisa Lewis
I met so many workers throughout the days of strike and, yes, it was emotional and yet inspiring and humbling. I met with Marisa Lewis, who was ready every day to start the chants and uplift her peers on the line. She would give them hope and call them out and ask why they were out there or sometimes reminding them when things got tough! She would call them out on the line and ask what it meant for them to be on strike. Sometimes she would remind them by saying one day longer!  One day stronger.  

Marisa got started when the state had a program that trained for jobs in janitorial or CNA. She chose CNA and received her certificate from Harold Washington College and has provided care for over for 35 years! Marisa is a mother of three children and was able to provide for her family. She has worked most of her life caring for others. She talked about how challenging it was when she started her first job as a CNA. She came across residents who needed total care who had bed sores and other issues. She said that she thought that she was going to leave the job, but she couldn’t leave because she wanted to be an advocate for the residents to make sure that they were treated fairly. She says nursing skills are easy to come by, but you must have a heart and patience to do this work. Marisa has changed so many lives for the better with her loving care. As for Marisa and her co-workers, they are the only people that the residents have that treat them like a family. She wishes that she could have continued her education to become a registered nurse. 

Leading up to the strike Marisa was asked by her steward to help get petitions signed. She recalls giving some push back until she heard someone say that Southpoint wasn’t ready to strike! Her adrenaline took over and she stepped up and assisted her union steward in getting petitions signed on all three shifts! She had courageous conversations with her co-workers and the day finally came and it lasted for 10 days. 

Marisa who works the 3pm-11pm, says they need 5 CNA’s on the floor where she works in order to provide the quality care with a ratio of 1:8 for the residents. Yet most days they have a ratio 1: 21 with only 3 CNA’s per floor. This places them with unsafe working conditions. These situations make it a stressful!  And it is especially challenging when someone requires total care, not to mention COVID-19. Moreover, over 30% of their staff were exposed and contracted the virus. She talked about her experience lobbying legislators to make changes in how the nursing homes are operated. When asked how she felt about going on strike she said “I feel good!  And I will continue to advocate for the residents along with my co-workers! Yes, I will do it again!” 

The Strike Ends: Workers Achieve Important Gains 
SEIUIIMK reached an agreement with Infinity Nursing Homes in December 2020 that represented a significant improvement for workers and the residents they care for. Some of the highlights include: 
  • Wage increases, including one time ratification bonuses of $500 for full time employees hired before 11/23/20 and  $200  for part time employees hired before that date
  • Other wage benefits, such as an increase in pandemic pay from $2 to $2.50 an hour for workers who care for verified Covid 19 patients, or those under observation for it
  • Workers cannot be required to work without proper PPE, and the ability to file grievances if proper PPE is unavailable
  •  Improvements in how sick days are paid, and the provision of 5 extra sick days that can be used for Covid-related illnesses, with an order from a physician    

Gwen Vaughn is a board member of Working Women’s History Project.
Working Women's History Project

Please contact us through Amy Laiken