LABOR How Four Black Women Changed Homecare Organizing Forever

THE FORGE, Keith Kelleher, February 19, 2024 

Forty years ago in Chicago, McMaid workers sparked a movement.

Irma Sherman, Chair of McMaid Workers Organizing Committee,

Forty years ago, Irma Sherman and the over 150 homecare workers employed by “McMaid” (Yes, McMaid really was the name of the company) decided they’d had enough of low wages and no benefits and began to organize their union with United Labor Unions (ULU) Local 880, a small, independent union founded by ACORN, the national community organization.

While McMaid advertised itself as one of Chicago’s premier “maid services,” with a green and white logo depicting a scantily clad white “maid” happily dancing around with feather duster in hand, in reality, the workers at McMaid were mostly Black and Brown middle-aged women who were not happy about their conditions. While their employer lived very well off the backbreaking labor of Black women, they were forced to scrape by on minimum wages.

Although they were providing vital, life-saving health care –– which was well beyond their job description –– to hundreds of homebound seniors and people with disabilities throughout Chicagoland, they had no health care for themselves or their family members. If they fell sick, their only recourse was “the County” –– the then very aged Cook County Hospital with daylong waits for care. Unable to sacrifice a day or longer at the County Hospital, many ignored their own health to care for their clients, more commonly known as consumers, endangering themselves, their families, and their consumers chasing the pay they needed to put food on the table.

Any consumers over the age of 60 were served through the Illinois Department of Aging’s (IDOA) Community Care Program, from which McMaid received the bulk of their funding through contract. McMaid was reimbursed at an hourly rate set by the IDOA through a competitive bid process. Agencies competed to see who could pay the lowest, so the competitive bid process drove down wages to at or below the then federal and state minimum wage of $3.35 with few to no benefits.

Irma and her coworkers knew they were being abused and they organized to stop it. Little did they know that their titanic struggle with their employer would require pioneering new tactics and strategies, lead to new models of organizing, and spark one of the largest organizing successes in modern labor history. 

But the boss wasn’t going to give in lightly. He hired one of the largest blue chip law firms in the city to fight their organizing drive, spending thousands of dollars of public funds to interrogate, harass, and intimidate Black women who only wanted to organize their union.

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