Teaching Profession

Child-Care Workers Eye Unionization

By Linda Jacobson — May 09, 2001 8 min read
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In what one organizer described as a ‘60s-style protest rally with guitar music and singing, a group of striking California child-care providers demonstrated on the grounds of the state Capitol in Sacramento last week, saying low wages are keeping good teachers from staying in the field.

The one-day strike was an attempt to give a higher profile to “Worthy Wage Day,” as May 1 has been known by child-care workers since 1991.

“People think there’s a crisis in K-12 [education], but they haven’t seen anything yet,” said Caroline C. Carney, a child-development instructor at Monterey Peninsula College and one of the organizers of the strike, called a CARE-OUT. That stands for Communities Addressing Retention of Early-Childhood Educators—Organizing for Underpaid Teachers.

The protest, though small in scale, was part of a growing number of efforts throughout the country to bring greater attention to inadequate working conditions in early-childhood education.

Liisa Hale, the co-director of the Association for Children’s Services, a nonprofit child-care center in Oakland, Calif., said she was somewhat disappointed with the turnout of fewer than 200 people. About 20 providers from her center walked off the job for the day.

But she added that she hopes the CARE-OUT will become an annual event. “The first step in any movement is to raise the consciousness of the world,” she said.

In January, child-care providers throughout New Hampshire staged a one-week “virtual” strike, meaning they asked parents to “imagine what it would be like if there was no child care this week,” said Jackie Cowell, the director of development and public affairs at the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire. The nonprofit early-childhood advocacy group worked with Children and Family Services, a social services agency in the state, to organize the event.

Activities that week in New Hampshire included a rally, a “budget watch” in which teachers and directors took turns attending state budget hearings, and a forum featuring Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who has made early-childhood education the centerpiece of her work as the current chairwoman of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

“We were really looking at this as public engagement,” Ms. Cowell said. She added that while no one walked off the job in the literal sense, the organizers wanted to call attention to the scores of child-care providers who leave their jobs every day.

Eyeing Unions

The child-care field is known for low wages, minimal benefits, and high turnover rates—all of which leads to mediocre care for children, researchers and advocates say.

Just last week, the Center for the Child Care Workforce, based in Washington, and the Institute for Industrial Relations at the University of California, Berkeley, released a study showing that 76 percent of the teachers at a sample of centers in three California counties had left their jobs since 1996. (“Study: Calif. Child-Care Centers Struggle To Keep Good Teachers,” May 2, 2001.)

Child-care providers express almost unanimous agreement on what they are striving to achieve: better compensation and more respect for the work they do.

But while many in the field have lobbied for legislative solutions, such as measures to provide wage subsidies and financial incentives tied to training, others are looking to labor unions to bring about change.

“We’re certainly seeing glimmers of it in a variety of places,” Faith Wohl, the executive director of the New York City- based Child Care Action Campaign, said about unionization. “These are the least likely people to walk a picket line, but nothing is happening to alleviate the low wages they are being paid.”

While the Washington-based American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, has been representing Head Start and child-care workers in New York state for years, the union is now increasing its efforts to organize child-care workers in other states, including Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

“We win wage increases, and oftentimes we are able to make a lot of progress on benefits,” said John Enagonio, an AFSCME spokesman. “But the thing that gets the most attention is just having a sense of dignity and respect where they work.”

A 20-year veteran of the early-childhood-education field, Denise Dowell is now working for the United Child Care Union, an AFSCME affiliate, to organize Head Start workers and child-care providers throughout Pennsylvania.

She said child-care administrators and staff members are often on the same side during negotiations.

“The fact that workers are so poorly paid is a huge issue for employers, because they can’t attract and retain qualified workers,” she said.

In Illinois, AFSCME is even organizing family-child-care providers who receive subsidies from the state for taking care of low-income children.

“We see these folks as very similar to home health-care workers,” said Keith J. Kelleher, a head organizer in Chicago for the Service Employees International Union.

Even though some consider such home-based providers of child care to be independent contractors, the union was able last year to negotiate an increase in the daily rates the providers receive per child. Mr. Kelleher said he’s now working to get health-insurance coverage for the members.

The nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, generally represent preschool teachers only if they work in school-based programs, such as district-run or state- financed prekindergarten programs.

nEA officials indicate the union has not explored the possibility of organizing preschool teachers who don’t work for school districts. But AFT officials say they are interested in organizing preschool teachers.

‘New Strategies’

Barbara A. Willer, the deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said her Washington-based organization hasn’t taken a position on child-care unions, in part because its members include directors, teachers, and family-child-care providers—the whole range of people working in the field.

But she added: “I think there may be some recognition that new strategies need to be tried.”

Townley Mailler, the director of government affairs for the National Head Start Association in Alexandria, Va., said that early-childhood educators’ moves to unionization should be decided on a case-by- case basis.

Many child-care workers remain wary of turning to unions.

Marcy Whitebook, a senior researcher at the Institute for Industrial Relations at the University of California, Berkeley, said some child-care employees are fearful of unions because they’ve heard bad things about them and others are just ideologically opposed to unionization.

She added that “people in early childhood don’t like to talk about power relationships with adults.”

Legislative Action

In some places, efforts to improve child-care wages and training have succeeded without the involvement of a union. The best known is probably North Carolina’s Teacher Education and Compensation Helps, or TEACH.

The program, which is paid for by a combination of state, federal, and private money, covers the cost of tuition for providers who want to acquire more education. When they complete a certificate or a degree, they receive a bonus or a raise. Several other states now have their own versions of the program.

But such programs don’t always reach everyone in the field, critics say.

In California, for example, the legislature passed an initiative last year called CARES, for Compensation and Retention Encourages Stability. While it was originally designed to reach every type of child-care provider, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation last year that allows state money for the program to go only to providers who work in state-funded programs.

“That leaves out the majority of child-care providers in the state,” Ms. Carney of Monterey Peninsula College said.

Ms. Whitebook of Berkeley, who helped design CARES, said that California’s state and county commissions on children and families—which manage revenue from a 50-cent state tobacco tax earmarked for early-childhood programs—are extending the stipends to providers in other programs.

Still, she said, CARES is “not really a compensation initiative.”

“It’s an add-on,” she said. “What we have not succeeded at doing is giving people permanent wages. The labor movement is critical in that.”

Ms. Whitebrook and Ms. Dowell of the National Child Care Union agree that it will take a combination of political action and collective bargaining to achieve what people in the field want.

“The problem with just going at it legislatively is that you’re not building a base,” Ms. Dowell argued. “Legislative gains come and go.”

On the flip side, Ms. Dowell said, negotiating just with employers can be a dead end if those employers don’t have any means of increasing wages.

‘High-Road Organizing’

Recent developments in Washington state illustrate what Ms. Dowell describes as “high- road organizing.”

Members of the newly formed Child Care Guild, an affiliate of the Service Employees Union International, worked with an employers’ association to lobby the legislature for a pilot “career ladder” program that provides incremental wage increases based on a provider’s experience, level of education, and responsibility. The program is helping both unionized and nonunionized child-care workers in more than 120 centers throughout the state.

“The union helped serve as a catalyst,” said Laura Paskin, the communications director for the Economic Opportunity Institute, the Seattle nonprofit organization that crafted the program. “Everyone is on the same page here.”

Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, allocated $4 million for the initiative in the budget for the current biennium, and those who helped establish the program hope to get that amount increased by about $8 million, Ms. Paskin said.

But Laura Chandler, the president of the Child Care Guild, who works at the Small Faces Child Development Center in Seattle, said she was not optimistic about an increase because the state has a growing “anti-tax” movement.

And therein lies the problem, Ms. Carney said. “Whether you’ve got a union or not,” she said, “the whole thing is, ‘Who’s going to pay?’”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2001 edition of Education Week as Child-Care Workers Eye Unionization


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