On June 12, 2002, over 150 members both SEIU Local 880 and Chicago ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), and disability rights allies from ADAPT (now known as American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today) and other community organizations were chanting and singing in the atrium lobby of the massive State of Illinois Building in downtown Chicago. Their collective voices climbed the 16 floors to the Governor’s office and reverberated throughout the open-air offices holding thousands of state employees, many leaning over the rails to see what the commotion was all about. These freedom fighters were there in support of 7 of their members who, in an act of civil disobedience, blocked lobby elevators to protest Republican Governor George Ryan’s demand to cut $50 million out of the state’s already underfunded homecare program:

“HAVE SOME GUTS, STOP THE CUTS!” they chanted.


SEIU Local 880 Board member and homecare worker, Odessa White, at 80 years of age being arrested on June 12, 2002, for participating in an act of civil disobedience along with six other 880 and ADAPT members and community allies. They had blocked the elevators in the State of Illinois Building in downtown Chicago to stop the proposed $50 million in cuts to the state’s already underfunded homecare program for seniors and people with disabilities. (SEIU Local 880 photo)


Sitting on the floor, blocking the elevators and business as usual were 80-year-old homecare worker and SEIU880 member Armean Allen and her 71-year-old union-sister Odessa White, along with five others. The police moved in quickly, attempting to stop the peaceful act of civil disobedience in front of the elevators; aggressively arresting and handcuffing Armean and her sister-protesters with zip ties and angrily dragging them by their bound arms out of the State of Illinois building.

SEIU Local 880 President, Helen Miller, on June 12, 2002, leading the hundreds of 880, ADAPT, ACORN, and community allies in songs and chants prior to the civil disobedience and arrests in front of the elevators leading to the Governor’s office in the State of Illinois building. The  resulting media around these arrests, the unpopularity of these and other budget cuts, and Republican corruption led to the election of the first Democratic governor in over 25 years in Illinois. (SEIU Local 880 Photo)


Dissatisfaction over these and other cuts, fueled in part by widespread media coverage of the civil disobedience in the State building, as well as entrenched corruption after thirty years of Republican rule in Illinois led to then-Governor Ryan choosing not to seek reelection under the cloud of a corruption investigation. Ryan later was indicted and imprisoned for his crimes. This scandal and the cuts to popular state programs like homecare, helped Rod Blagojevich, until then a state rep, win the election as Illinois’ Governor five months later.

Earlier in 2002, SEIU Local 880 had supported Rod Blagojevich for Governor in the Illinois Democratic primary. Blagojevich had agreed to support our 20 year effort to win two key executive and legislative demands: The first would be an Executive Order (EO) signed by the Governor and support for follow-up enabling legislation that would strengthen the state’s homecare program by allowing the over 20,000 homecare workers to organize under the state collective bargaining act and sit down and bargain a union contract.  The second was for the Governor to sign a second Executive Order (EO) and enabling legislation that would allow over 49,000 childcare workers the right to organize under the state’s collective bargaining act. These over 70,000 workers had been organizing for almost 20 years without such recognition or protections. A path to union recognition and a real union contract would be the only way to win the living wages and benefits they had been fighting for over the past two decades.

Still, we were leery of Blagojevich and his father-in-law, the powerful machine alderman Dick Mell, leader of one of the strongest ward organizations in Chicago. Years earlier, we had run-ins with both of them and their organizations in the state capitol and in Chicago. In one election campaign, we backed progressive Latinx candidates over their more conservative machine candidates. It got nasty and the tires on one of our organizer’s cars were slit – twice.

But Blago, as we and many others grew to call him, was the only one of the three major Democratic candidates for Governor in 2002 to support an Executive Order (EO) and enabling legislation which would allow the homecare workers and childcare providers we were organizing to finally win recognition.

This meant that our almost 20-year struggle for union recognition might finally end in victory and a state contract. The homecare and childcare providers had formed their own independent union and were denied formal recognition at every turn during the previous two decades. These brave workers, led by homecare worker and eventual 880 President, Helen Miller, built a union the old-fashioned way: by going deep into communities and workplaces. That was no easy feat because these 70,000 homecare and childcare workers had no central workplace: The homecare workers traveled from their homes to their clients homes and some lived with their consumers or were relatives, tens of thousands of individual workplaces in all. Similarly, the home childcare providers worked out of their own homes, caring for over 200,000 publicly-subsidized children through the state’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP). Going deep into the community and workplace meant house-visiting tens of thousands of workers at their homes or their consumers’ homes and childcare centers, signing up members, and collecting dues in cash. In short, acting like a union without formal recognition and engaging in direct action campaigns for raises and improvements when many believed it couldn’t be done.

By 2002, we had built an organization of over 10,000 dues-paying members where there had been none before. We engaged in worksite, community, and political campaigns with our brothers and sisters in Chicago and Illinois ACORN, the national community group that was so key to our founding in 1983 as an independent union and remained our sister organization after our affiliation with SEIU in 1985.

Blago knew this and needed our help to win the Democratic primary. He knew our thousands of Black, Brown, white, and primarily woman low-wage homecare and childcare workers and voters – painstakingly organized over the years into chapters from Chicago, to the fast-growing Black and Brown populations in the south and western suburbs, and from the outstate communities of East St Louis and Rockford to Peoria, Mt Vernon, and Cairo – could be a major help in his campaign.

But we never trusted him. As organizers, through our training and experience, we learned the hard way to trust few, if any, politicians.

880, together with the SEIU Illinois State Council and national SEIU, supported Blago and, most importantly, mobilized thousands of our member-volunteers and support from our sister locals throughout the Midwest and progressive allies to work the precincts all over the state. All this work culminated in a 1000-member volunteer Get Out the Vote (GOTV) weekend right before the 2002 Democratic primary. Illinois ACORN did the same and Blago won the primary by just 2% of the vote (36.5%), beating out former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas (34.5%) and former state Comptroller Roland Burris (29%). He won by only 25,000 votes. Our field work was seen as fundamental to his victory.

Blago stuck to his word and shortly after being sworn in, in the Spring of 2003, signed an Executive Order setting up a pathway to union recognition for the homecare workers and supporting the enabling legislation – the first time in US history that a Governor signed an Executive Order granting homecare workers organizing rights. That legislation passed through the House and Senate later in the Spring on an overwhelming bipartisan vote with almost every Democratic and Republican state rep and senator voting for the bill; proof of the strength of the grassroots organization the homecare and childcare workers painstakingly built, district by district, over those 20 years. Once it was passed overwhelmingly by the State House and Senate, Blagojevich signed it into law in his office with Homecare providers surrounding him.

We knew that once we had won the election and passed the Homecare workers’ EO and union recognition legislation, the real work would begin. Although he finally came through with the EO and legislative support, we still didn’t trust Blago because of our experience with his and his father-in-law’s machine background and tactics. 

His political staff even tried to back off Blago’s commitment that he would also grant bargaining rights and support enabling legislation for the over 49,000 home childcare providers in the state – first, by saying he never committed to granting childcare workers their organizing rights, and then, after we reminded them of the commitment, saying that it would have to wait until after the 2006 Governor’s election. This backing off on earlier commitments did not bode well for our upcoming homecare negotiations. (Blago eventually granted a childcare EO, but not until 2005.)

We felt that he might try to stop us in negotiations and refuse to give us raises – as so many Democratic and Republican leaders had done over the years. And we were right.

No sooner had we started moving the EO and legislation and began negotiations than the Governor’s labor relations and intergovernmental affairs staff started poor-mouthing: saying that the state budget was a mess, that the state was broke, and that they could give us recognition but couldn’t afford to give us any increases in wages and benefits.

In negotiations, Blagojevich’s team stalled and it took us many weeks to get to the discussion on wages, only to have their first offer be ZERO increases over three years! Our member bargaining committee said no way. After many negotiating sessions and sidebar discussions, Blago’s team came back and offered no wage increase the first year, no wage increase the second year, and a .05 cent increase the third year. Flora Johnson, VP of 880, and a homecare worker on the bargaining committee responded, “You put a period and two zeros after that 5, you might have a deal.” Needless to say, the state refused Flora’s $5 counter-offer. The fight was ON.

We knew our members hadn’t organized for twenty years, won impressive incremental gains through the legislature, and then helped to elect the first Democratic governor in 25 years only to be told they would get a contract with no raises from a Governor who had committed to both. We saw that as Blago going low on us – again.

So, we went Deep – again. We went back to our members across the state.

Anticipating this scenario, SEIU880 leaders and staff had directed our legislative team and grassroots lobbying efforts early in the session to introduce and pass a bill through the state legislature that would grant a $2 per hour wage increase – the largest ever in state history – to the over 25,000 homecare workers who worked for the state of Illinois. We also introduced legislation that would allow similar increases to the thousands of private sector homecare workers we represented as well as the 49,000 childcare providers we were organizing.

The reaction by the Blagojevich administration was quick and severe – they decried the legislation and called our move to win an increase through the legislation a “low blow.” They claimed that they had been operating in “good faith” with us and that we “went around them” to the state legislature and were trying to pass something that we should be discussing at the bargaining table.

Blago and many others in Chicago politics were used to the “okey-doke” way of doing politics on just a backroom deal.  In this scenario, unions often thought they had a deal and that “the deal was done,” only to later discover that they got screwed in the promised legislative language or contract improvement. Although we weren’t against making a deal, we had seen too many times how politicians, Democratic and Republican, had agreed to a deal on a wink and a nod – the “okey doke” – only to screw the union. And the unions many times had not been engaged in a campaign with their members and the public, but instead put their faith in the old “okey-doke” and lost. We didn’t want to make that mistake.

We responded to their allegations of low tactics by saying that we were “building the lift under their wings” and “wind at their backs” for them to grant the increases, by showing that the legislature was supporting dramatic wage increases. 

We had also heard that Mike Madigan, the Democratic Speaker of the House, wasn’t overjoyed with the Blagojevich upset victory – especially since Blago was the son-in-law of a competing Democratic ward organization boss. Madigan was more than happy to help pass the $2 an hour bill even though it might embarrass Blago and his father-in-law, and we knew that in the process it could help our 25,000 homecare members win a much-deserved raise.

And so we went deep by organizing in-district meetings with state representatives and senators through all our chapters across the state and engaging the public on the righteousness of the homecare workers' fight for recognition and living wages and benefits. We also timed a huge lobby day bringing hundreds of homecare and childcare workers from every part of the state to Springfield to march on the state capitol, which also housed the Governor’s office, and demand that the $2 an hour raise be passed by the legislature late in the Spring session (timed to be most helpful at passing the bill). It worked – the $2 an hour raise bill passed the legislature!


With the $2 raise hanging over his head, Blago had 90 days to decide if he was going to veto the bill or not. If he didn’t veto the bill, the $2 per hour raise would become effective immediately and retroactive to July 1, 2003 and blow another $52 million hole in the budget, and Blago couldn’t afford that. If he did veto the bill and denied any increases in negotiations, he knew there would be hell to pay from the 70,000 homecare and childcare providers who had worked so hard to put him in office. 

It had barely been a year since SEIU880 members and homecare consumer allies were arrested and dragged out of the State of Illinois Building to jail for protesting Governor Ryan’s attempts to cut $50 million from the state homecare budget in the waning days of his administration. We knew Blagojevich did not want that kind of negative coverage in his first few months in office.

We fought at the bargaining table all summer until – at the midnight hour, just days before he had to sign or veto the bill – Blago and his bargaining team agreed to include in the contract a $2.65 per hour raise spaced over four years. That increase would raise wages 36%, from only $7 per hour to $9.65 per hour, and was part of a package that also won a paid training fund, a grievance procedure, a union shop, and many other improvements. Having secured the wage increases and benefits in the contract, we didn’t mind when he later vetoed our bill – it was always better to have our raises guaranteed in a contract than at the whim of the legislature.

Today these homecare workers, who once earned as low as $1 per hour when we first started organizing in 1983, are earning $17.25 per hour in their current contract and hope to get on a path to $25 per hour when renegotiating for higher wages later this year. They’ve also won employer-paid health care coverage, a paid training fund, pandemic pay, paid time off, and other improvements that many never thought possible. Still not enough for the vital work they do, but on a path to a living wage. The childcare providers and private sector homecare workers eventually won their increases and contracts containing health coverage and similar benefits.  And Local 880, once the smallest local union in Chicago and Illinois, is now the largest local union in Chicago, Illinois, and the Midwest.

They went low, but we went deep – and won.




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