Economy

Day Care Workers Flex Their Muscle

Unions are encouraging America's huge (and hugely underpaid) child-care work force to fight for a living wage.
When her infant daughter's chronic ear infections made her miss too many days at work, Angenita Tanner of Chicago decided in 1996 to quit her job and work from home as a full-time babysitter.

Experienced in the field and equipped with an associate degree in early childhood education, she launched Grandma's House Child Care. Her first clients were low-income working mothers whose daycare expenses were paid by the state. Six months after Tanner's career change, she found herself on the brink of financial ruin. She had received no payment from the state for the eight children in her daily care.

"I was in business six months and not getting a paycheck. I was at the kitchen table with my assistant, a retired nurse, going over the bills. I'm feeding the kids, trying to pay my mortgage, trying to provide materials like books and toys, plus I haven't paid my assistant," she remembers. "Being in business for yourself in your own home, you have no one to go to. I'm sitting there, I'm stressed and the doorbell rings."

At the door, as if on cue, was a representative of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Tanner attended an SEIU organizing meeting that night, found herself giving an impassioned speech and joining the union. "At that point I realized I wasn't alone anymore," she recalls. Thus began her commitment to improve the working conditions of Illinois child-care providers who contract with the state.

This week, Tanner is expecting her paycheck to reflect the first rate increase she's gotten in nearly seven years, thanks to a new contract negotiated by child-care workers in SEIU. The contract will provide opportunities for professional training in year two and, by the third year, access to health care. It's the first time a union has successfully represented the home-based daycare work force.

Recruiting new union members

Around the country, unions are reaching out to America's daycare staffs, preschool teachers and full-time babysitters, using innovative approaches to recruit members of the poorly paid and largely female child-care work force, estimated at two million. Care of children is among the lowest-paid professions, averaging $8.68 hourly. Preschool teachers earn $11.81 hourly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Both professions bring in less than a rock splitter at $13.66 an hour.)

Meanwhile, the ranks of union-represented child-care workers are growing. More than 350,000 child-care workers are affiliated with SEIU, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the United Child Care Union and its sponsor, AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"This is definitely a strong labor movement," says Melanie Rincon, a home-daycare provider for 21 years. Based in Santa Rosa, Calif., Rincon now works-full time as a campaign organizer for AFSCME.

"The majority of home providers don't have sick time or health insurance," she says, pointing out the easily overlooked -- yet entirely crucial -- relationship of child-care to economic productivity. "They enable California to keep working. Without child care, California would stop. The wheels would not turn if we did not provide the care."

Worthy wages

The nation's second-largest teachers' union, the AFT has focused largely on organizing among preschool teachers and the staffs of daycare centers. Earlier this month, the AFT petitioned members of Congress to support better pay on May 1, which they designated "Worthy Wage Day."

Low wages are widely believed to be the prime reason the child-care field is so unstable.

"There's approximately a 30 percent annual turnover in child-care settings," says Leslie Getzinger, spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers, which counts 10,000 child-care workers among its 1.3 million membership. "You're dealing with a revolving-door staff. … The people who leave are often the best teachers."

The AFT is reaching out not only to preschool teachers but to directors and owners of private and not-for-profit centers. In many cases, employers simply don't have the resources to pay workers more, but would support AFT initiatives to secure state funds for advanced training and subsidies for worker raises that reward longevity on the job.

"There needs to be a public funding source, not just the parents paying tuition who are footing the bill," Getzinger says.

The cost of care

Depending on the age of a child and region of the country, full-time child care can cost anywhere from $4,000 to more than double that amount per child annually, which is a strain for many working parents. (Home-based care -- when the parents leave a child at the home of a regular full-time babysitter -- tends to be less expensive than tuition at an accredited preschool, and infant care is more expensive than care of a three- or four-year-old.) Child care is often the second-highest expense in a household, following rent or mortgage.

"Providers can't afford to stay, and parents can't afford to pay" is an expression in the child-care industry to describe the flight of workers from the field in search of more livable wages even as parents struggle to pay the cost of care. Despite the high rates, home-based providers in particular struggle, union organizers say, because they often can't count on parents signing on for full-time care. In addition, they periodically run short of clients when families move, kids get older or parents change jobs. Meanwhile, sick leave and benefits are out of reach, state reimbursements can run weeks behind, and hours can be quite long, accommodating early-morning drop-offs and evening pickups in some cases.

The unions

SEIU represents 200,000 child-care workers, including 49,000 home-daycare providers in Illinois and 10,000 in Washington who joined last year. In reaching out to home-daycare providers, SEIU is arguably unionizing a self-employed work force -- an obvious departure from the traditional negotiating model that pits employees against management.

"This is new ground because our members are small businesses in many cases," says Gretchen Donart, communications organizer for the SEIU Local 925, based in Washington.

In addition to raising the rates for state-subsidized care, SEIU also advocates for members on licensing and enforcement issues. In Illinois, SEIU gained a state commitment of $27 million toward affordable health care in year three of the current contract. Echoing other union organizers, Donart stresses SEIU's intention not to pass the cost of new benefits on to parents; rather, she and other organizers hope to win the support of parents, who presumably would welcome a reduction in turnover among the people who care for their kids.

The union associated with public servants, AFSCME, already represents 150,000 child-care workers in child-care centers, Head Start programs and nonprofit centers around the country, according to union officials. In 1998, AFSCME helped establish the United Child Care Union, which started in Pennsylvania and is now organizing in California. AFSCME, meanwhile, continues to organize child-care workers around the country.

In California, where the United Child Care Union has 3,000 members so far, organizers are also dealing with special issues that the rest of the country might soon face: a multicultural and sometimes linguistically isolated work force, as well as a proposal for universal preschool. The United Child Care Union has taken great pains in California to include non-English-speaking child-care providers, says Melanie Rincon, a former home-based provider who is now a union organizer. Her efforts include outreach to Latino, Russian and Hmong child-care workers, but she wonders how non-English speakers will fare if California's Proposition 82 passes.

In California: Proposition 82

On the ballot June 6, the measure would establish voluntary preschool education for all four-year-olds. Providers who want to be part of it, however, would have to earn a bachelor's degree during a gradual phasing-in period. The average age of a home-based child-care provider is 45, according to AFSCME, which begs the question: Will Proposition 82 leave behind many middle-aged child-care providers and non-English speakers? What about the small home-based babysitters who are providing good service at affordable rates to working families? These are issues that organized labor will find itself confronting as more states roll out universal preschool.

The answer might be in allowing people who take care of children in their homes to arrange for credentialed preschool teachers to spend part of the day there, or to arrange for resources in bilingual training in some cases, union officials say. In the meantime, unions are scrambling to build their ranks as quickly as possible.

"We're reaching out to providers around the country, and they're joining in high numbers," says Marie Monrad, association director, Organizing and Field Services at AFSCME. "This has steamrolled."