Following mom’s footsteps as organizer
For Local 502 member
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, including a country girl from Alabama who never made waves. That is, until Mary Moore became a lead SEIU organizer for the housekeeping aides at United Hospital in St. Paul in the 1980s and 1990s.
Mary’s daughter, Vernitta Moore (pictured on the right), has stepped into her mother’s impressive union shoes and is now recording secretary, steward, and meet-and-confer team member for Local 502. Vernitta is a buyer for the Department of Public Safety (DPS), an agency she first walked into 25 years ago as an unpaid intern.
Vernitta’s great-grandmother lived in the Twin Cities and persuaded Mary and her family to move to Minnesota for better job opportunities in the mid-1970s. “My mom hated the winter here, so my dad would send her back to Alabama to visit family, and they would always send her right back here. She didn’t like Minnesota until she began working as a housekeeping aide at the hospital. They had high standards and she trained people and was so proud of what she was doing.”
Mary began working at Miller Hospital, now United Hospital, in 1975 and remained there for 27 years.
Vernitta said her mother would get up at 5 a.m. each day to meet her colleagues in the hospital cafeteria for coffee. Then, they would head over to their locker room to change into their uniforms for the day. “It was easier to talk with them in the locker room. She was able to get most of them on board. I think the union asked my mom to recruit members because people gravitated toward her,” Vernitta said. “At home at night, I remember the phone ringing off the hook because workers would call her.”
Vernitta said she was surprised by her mom’s leading role because “she was usually the one to follow the rules. But the housekeepers were very low-paid, and other units were organizing at the hospital. So. I think that gave her courage,” Vernitta said.
Vernitta added that her mother always felt the housekeepers deserved more respect, and she was able to convince colleagues and management to change the workers’ titles from “housekeeping aides” to “environmental specialists.”
Once the union was voted in, Mary’s paycheck increased. “I was so happy for her -- she worked so hard and I was very proud when she got her raise,” Vernitta said.
In those days, paychecks were mailed to employees at their homes. Vernitta remembers watching her mother pacing the living room floor waiting for the letter carrier to deliver her first paycheck as a member of SEIU Local 113. “My mom usually gave my dad half of each paycheck to pay family bills. But when her first union check came in the mail, he told her to keep the whole thing and to go celebrate – and we did, too! She took us out shopping.”
In the photo on the right, Vernitta Moore’s mother Mary (far right) is pictured with national SEIU President John Sweeney (second from left) and others celebrating housekeeping aides’ contract at United Hospital in St. Paul.
Vernitta was working at DPS when state employees went on strike in 2001 over health care costs. “I didn’t really know much about the union back then. I didn’t understand what the strike was about. I was afraid to be seen on the picket line, but I wasn’t a scab.
“My mom called me and was surprised to find me at home. She said, ‘I want you to get down there and support your union.’ It took her years to have a union, and I felt for me to sit on the sidelines was an insult to her, so I went down to the picket line,” Vernitta said.
Mary had bonded well with her nursing colleagues at United, and Vernitta said the nurses “showed mom how to do things on the side, and she would get so excited when they showed her how take someone’s blood pressure, and she helped out with the restraints.”
On Mary’s 50th birthday, several nurses came over with a surprise birthday cake. “My mom lit up. They just adored her. I think she would have liked to have been a nurse if she could have had the opportunity,” Vernitta added.
Mary was used to working weekends and long shifts and her new union seniority allowed her to work regular 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekday shifts. “Her seniority also enabled her to work in the brand-new John Nessef Heart Hospital and she was in heaven,” Vernitta said.
“I don’t think my brother and I grasped the enormity of what she was doing. I have struggled recruiting members in comparison to starting a union like she did. I was able to easily join a union, but my mom really made a difference,” Vernitta said.