Lula Bronson, the daughter of sharecroppers, had only a grade-school education, but she helped build a tiny union local from seven members to 92,000 across the Midwest.
She didn’t do a hard sell when she knocked on doors to sign up workers for the Service Employees International Union Local 880, which was seeking to represent workers in child care and those personal assistants who cook, clean and tidy up for the elderly, the sick and those with disabilities.
But she drew people in, according to Helen Miller, retired president of SEIU Local 880.
“When you would come to the door, her voice was so soft and gentle and so sweet and loving,” Miller said. “Something about the character of that voice made you listen.”
The union, now known as SEIU Healthcare, represents more than 92,000 people in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas.
In Illinois, “It’s probably the largest union of women in the state,” most of them women of color, according to Keith Kelleher, a senior adviser with the union.
Mrs. Bronson died April 12 at her West Side home. She was 81 and had stomach cancer.
Growing up, she picked cotton in Turrell, Arkansas.
In the 1970s, after the death of her husband William, she moved to Chicago, where she raised eight kids while employed as a home-care worker for private agencies and the Illinois Department of Human Services.
“She was trying to make a better life,” said her daughter Sandra Bronson.
Mrs. Bronson cooked, cleaned and shopped for groceries for the people she assisted. She made minimum wage, sometimes less. By 1996, she was making $5 an hour — up $1.65 an hour from what she was paid a decade earlier.
Her hands grew worn, but she remained patient, Miller said: “She used to say, ‘You’ve got to love people to show love.’ ”
Still, Mrs. Bronson told the Chicago Sun-Times in a 1996 interview, “I’ve got more bills than money.”
“She worked all of her life — eight kids and building the union,” Kelleher said.
Always an unpaid volunteer, she eventually became a vice president of SEIU Local 880.
Because home-care providers work at many locations and job sites, “Lula was one of the pioneer organizers, organizing what many people thought was unorganizable,” Kelleher said. “She went door to door, house visit by house visit, and signed them up for the union.”
In 2003, she helped win the first statewide union contract for home-care workers in Illinois, an achievement that covered 20,000 personal assistants, according to Kelleher.
She traveled the country, speaking with child-care and health-care providers, helping organize an estimated 600,000 personal assistants in 15 states, he said.
Mrs. Bronson also campaigned for Barack Obama when he ran for state senate and U.S. Senate.
She retired in 2007.
A member of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church at 4301 W. Washington, “She wore hats to church every Sunday,” each color-coordinated with her outfit, her daughter said.
Mrs. Bronson enjoyed gospel performers, especially the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Two of her favorite hymns were “I’ve been in the Storm So Long” and “Let the Church Say Amen” by Marvin Winans.
She made delicious fried chicken, greens and candied yams, her daughter said.
Mrs. Bronson is also survived by daughters Karen Fox and Carol Bronson; sons William, Calvin, Terry and Randy; sisters Ora Hale and Vivian Freeman; brothers James Grice, Isaac Freeman and Leon Freeman; 16 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. Services have been held.