“What does the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) mean to you?”
That is the question I started with when this project began. With union density having reached historic lows in this country, “union” is just a word for most people. For the seven SEIU Local 1 members in Chicago I profiled for this project, including Patrick O’Malley, a doorman at a residential building on East Lakeshore Drive, it’s much more.
“Because of SEIU Local 1, workers now have a voice on the job. We have the ability to talk to employers about things we need like health insurance, retirement benefits, and wages that reflect our work. I am proud to be a doorman. I am proud to be a Chicagoan. I am proud to be union,” O’Malley said.
After years of struggle, Chicago Flat Janitor’s Union signed a historic agreement in 1917 with the Chicago Real Estate Board. Terms of the contract included a closed shop, arbitration of disputes, and a ban on forcing the wives of janitors to do janitorial work.
In 1904, a diverse group of immigrant janitors, window washers, and elevator operators—including Eastern European, African, and Irish workers—joined together to form the Chicago Flat Janitor’s Union to fight for better wages and working conditions. The janitors union would become the nation’s first union of building employees, a precursor to SEIU.
Today, SEIU Local 1 has branched out from its storied Chicago roots and now represents 50,000 workers across six states—Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, and Indiana—in such professions as security, commercial, food service, airports, janitorial, and residential.
The stories below highlight just how valuable union membership is—for individual workers and for everyone. To talk to union workers is to realize that it is possible to have fair wages, health care, and retirement benefits (even though those things seem increasingly unattainable for most of us). The rights afforded to union members should not be viewed with envy or malice; rather, they should embody the goals that workers everywhere can reach by collectively organizing in the workplace. While more and more workers see their share of the proverbial pie decrease and the dream of a secure financial existence becomes ever less attainable, workers like Barry Lyons, a maintenance technician at a residential building, are a living testament to the union difference.
“Being a part of SEIU Local 1 has provided financial security, health benefits at a reasonable cost, and I was able to purchase my first home as a Local 1 member—something I would have never been able to do 14 years ago,” Lyons said.
As workers struggle around the country today to make sense of their work lives and the ways they are treated in this economy, and to ask whether or not things could be different, it’s more important than ever to hear from workers who are a part of a union. “What does the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) mean to you?” I asked seven members of SEIU Local 1. Here’s what they said:
Jay Flores, Chief Engineer, Certified Residential Engineer – Gold Coast, Chicago
My wife and two young daughters are my world and everything I have done has been for them. Before I joined SEIU Local 1 in 2013, I was working a low-wage job doing everything and anything: I would cut grass, paint walls, mop floors—I was at the bottom. In 2013, I needed to make a change for myself and my family. I joined Local 1 as a maintenance worker under the Chicago Housing Authority making $19 an hour—$4 more than I was making before. My family and I now had high-quality, affordable health insurance. And, equally as important, I was given an opportunity to advance.
The work is out there. The buildings are out there. But Local 1 gave me the opportunity to grow in knowledge, advance my career, develop myself as a leader, and be able to better provide for my family. I enrolled into the two-year apprenticeship program, obtained my City of Chicago Stationary License, and completed my Certified Residential Engineer’s (CRE) class, all through the Local 1 training fund.
I am now a chief engineer in Gold Coast, Chicago. I am on call 24/7, responsible for the functionality of the building. I took advantage of the opportunities given to me and the hard work paid off. Now, as a leader in my building, I feed my guys these same opportunities, encouraging them to take classes and further their education through the training fund. I want to see them be successful and grow both in this field and as people—whether that’s for them or, like me, for the ones they love.
Divida Edmondson, Janitor/Maintenance Worker, Residential Division – 2 East Oak, Chicago
Fifteen years ago, I was living in Indiana picking up any job that would pay the bills. I was living paycheck to paycheck without any job stability or benefits and providing for three children. Taking a new job and joining SEIU Local 1 was a risk, but I needed a change in order to survive. I uprooted my life to Chicago and became a maintenance worker in the Residential Division, ensuring Chicago residents are safe and their homes are functioning properly.
I became more focused on my goals in life—I had to. Local 1 gave me an opportunity to get ahead. I was learning new trades, becoming more involved in the contract negotiation process, and they helped me go back to school. I was able to start and finish a two-year apprenticeship program that allowed me to achieve positions that I wasn’t qualified for before. Now, after my 15 years at Local 1, I am a leader on the residential bargaining team and have helped win two contracts that got us higher wages and better benefits. Beyond that, I make it my duty to help educate my co-workers on the opportunities they have at their fingers through the union and reassure them that anything is possible!
Barry Lyons, Chief Engineer, Residential Division – Chicago
I grew up on the south side of Chicago as the oldest of three boys, unsure of what my future held. Soon after high school I joined the United States Marine Corps, traveling around the world to protect our country. In those eight years, the US Marine Corps became my second family. Little did I know that I would find a third family years later.
In 2007, I joined SEIU Local 1 as a maintenance technician in a Chicago residential building. We were in the midst of an economic recession and taking this job was a risk, but it was a risk that provided opportunity. To be frank: I worked my butt off. I wanted to learn. I wanted to move up. I wanted to be the best. Within three weeks, I became the understudy to the chief engineer and was later promoted to assistant engineer. Fourteen years later and the risk paid off. I am the chief engineer of my building, part of the Local 1 collective bargaining team, and live a life I had never dreamed of.
Being a part of SEIU Local 1 has provided financial security, health benefits at a reasonable cost, and I was able to purchase my first home as a Local 1 member—something I would have never been able to do 14 years ago. Beyond that, Local 1 has provided me with a skill set that I will have for life and one that gives me the ability to help others. My Local 1 co-workers are my family, and as family does, I want to do all I can to help those after me learn and progress in the same way I did. I got where I got with the help of Local 1 chief engineers before me—mentors who saw potential. Now I need to return the favor.
SEIU Local 1 is my third family. We are strong, valuable, and we will continue to grow. Grow in numbers, grow in knowledge, and grow as people.
Pete Haji, Cargo Agent (Truck Desk) – Chicago O’Hare Airport, Chicago
I am a proud truck desk agent at Chicago O’Hare Airport, ensuring shipments of goods through the airport get where they need to be in a safe and timely manner. When COVID-19 hit, many people got to prioritize their health and work from home. I did not. I showed up to work every day, fearing for my health and safety while barely making $15 an hour. It was a scary time for my Local 1 co-workers and I—a time we couldn’t have gotten through without each other.
Since joining SEIU Local 1, my life has changed. I now have a higher wage that helps provide for my family and job security that takes away financial stress. Before joining the union, I was making nearly half of what I make now, and it continues to increase every single year. Whether raises Local 1 wins are big or small, every bit counts. I will continue to use my voice at the table and fight for livable wages until all of us are making what we deserve!
Michael Ortiz, Passenger Service Assistant – Midway International Airport, Chicago
My journey with the union has been an interesting one—oftentimes it was difficult, but ultimately rewarding. I was born and raised in Chicago, getting a job with Prospect in the Midway International Airport as a passenger service assistant (PSA) nearly 20 years ago. When I first started at Prospect, I was making poverty wages and hardly any benefits. I was grateful for a job, but grateful doesn’t pay the bills when you’re providing for your son and girlfriend. I had two options: create change within Prospect or get a new job. In 2012, I rallied with my co-workers to unionize. Many of them were skeptical—rightfully so. We all put our jobs on the line to fight for a union. We ended up losing that fight in 2012 and continued to face poverty wages, zero voice at the table, and long hours.
Six years later, in 2018, it became clear that we had to try again and fight for what we deserve. When I am asked, “Why didn’t you just find a new job?”, simply put: I loved my job. I found fulfillment in my job. I got to show up every day and work with the elderly and people with disabilities and have a positive impact on their lives! This job was worth fighting for. That year, Prospect workers became part of SEIU Local 1, the first union contract most of us had ever had. Now, in 2021, my co-workers and I have nearly a 50% wage increase from 2012, paid vacation time that they’ve never had, a voice at the table, and the ability to provide for our families.
Beyond that, we were able to eliminate the tipped wage for PSAs and push the City (through the CDA [Chicago Department of Aviation]) to change the rules for wheelchair pushers from a tipped position to a non-tipped position, resulting in higher wages. My co-workers and I went from $10 or $11 to $15 or $15.30 plus tips. This was all possible because Local 1 gave us the tools to fight for what we deserve—together.
Helen Adair, Security Officer – Chicago
I am not a people person, and never have been, even though my job as a security officer requires interactions with many different people from many different backgrounds. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was scared of going to work and putting my health and safety at risk. When I got vaccinated, as did my co-workers, that fear alleviated—but the job isn’t any less risky. People are often hostile, especially when I ask them to follow the city mandate of wearing a mask. It is my job to keep everyone safe and follow the rules. All I can do is try to be myself, giving respect even if I’m not being respected. That is how I was raised.
But despite being on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic and playing an essential role in ensuring Chicago’s recovery from this crisis, I still struggle to make ends meet. I’m underpaid and underappreciated.
What gives me hope is being in a union with my co-workers. In a few months, thousands of security officers like me will be coming together to fight for a strong new contract. We want a new agreement that honors our essential work. If it wasn’t for our union, I wouldn’t have found my voice to speak up and make a difference. In 2022 security will be on the move, and we’re ready.
Patrick O’Malley, Doorman, Residential Division – 189 E. Lakeshore Drive, Chicago
Born and raised in downtown Chicago, I have been a doorman at 189 E. Lakeshore Drive in Chicago for 25 years—servicing the same building, the same residents, and developing new relationships on the way. At 7AM, I am often the first face residents see, so I take pride in helping them start their day out right. We often forget how our moods can impact others.
When the pandemic hit, “essential workers” got a whole new meaning. No one thought that their 7AM-3PM doorman was essential until they realized the amount of work we do. We are ensuring residents have access to their building, that their packages and groceries were properly delivered during COVID, and one of the biggest challenges: being the frontline person to strangers on the street trying to enter the building. Our health and safety was and still is at risk. While very few people still had to show up to work during the heart of the pandemic, we and many other low-income workers had to, and oftentimes we did so to protect CEOs and wealthy folks who had the option to stay home. While there are many risks as a doorman in downtown Chicago, there is also so much fulfillment in this work.
Being a union worker has its perks. Like everything else, unions aren’t perfect. But because of SEIU Local 1, workers now have a voice on the job. We have the ability to talk to employers about things we need like health insurance, retirement benefits, and wages that reflect our work. I am proud to be a doorman. I am proud to be a Chicagoan. I am proud to be union.
All photos by Jason Kerzinski.