Eyeing a United Child-Care Work Force


Nikki Hill has spent most of the last 14 hours channeling the perpetual motion of 30 children 4 to 10 years old. It’s 8:30 p.m. now, and for the fourth time today, Hill is ready for circle time, the day-care ritual of group singing.

But this circle will be different. It is taking place in the dim basement conference room of a union hall in downtown Philadelphia. Hill and nine other weary child-care workers from across the city are standing in a circle, holding hands.

Meet the steering committee of one of the newest and most unusual union-organizing efforts in the nation: a bid to bring 24,000 child-care workers in the Delaware Valley together into the Professional Childcare Employees Assn.

“Together, we can move mountains,” they warble, hands clasped and eyes closed soulfully. Each then draws her hands to her chest, pantomiming as the kids do when their circle time songs call for it. “Alone,” they sing, “we can’t move at all.”


Besides Hill, four of the women run family day-care homes, four work at day-care centers and one, a grandmother, substitutes at day-care centers and baby-sits in people’s homes. A month ago, they were strangers to each other. Today, at a time when the child-care industry is buffeted by extraordinary new growth and new pressures, the women are joined in history. They are the founding mothers of Philadelphia’s child-care workers union, launched last month as an affiliate of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees.

The union hopes that by pioneering the concept in Philadelphia, it will be able to blaze a path for organizers in other cities. Already, a similar effort is underway in Seattle. And labor leaders are eyeing New York as the next target of their organizing efforts.

Unions are intent on capturing the fast-growing force of child-care workers, not only because it is a huge source of potential new members but also because child care has become a pressing issue for union members.

“For us to have impact, you’ve got to give us two to three years,” says Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who calls the effort a priority. “But we’re in this for the long haul.”


Fragmented Force Presents a Challenge

Partisans and critics alike concede that the task will be a challenge. The child-care work force is vast--and fragmented. Workers move in and out of the industry as well as from employer to employer. There also is agreement that, if such a union is successful, it could dramatically change the child-care landscape.

But visions of that landscape differ markedly. Advocates of organizing workers argue that a union would invigorate the day-care industry, with more government investment, a more stable and better-trained work force and happier kids. Critics, many of them parents, worry that day care delivered by union workers would be more expensive.

The effort also poses a test for organized labor. At a time when unions are pondering how to reverse decades of decline, day care offers the chance to organize a new generation of post-industrial workers. To union leaders, child-care workers like Hill are prototypical of the new age. An assistant day-care teacher who makes $7.50 an hour and has no benefits, Hill is a low-wage service employee working in an industry of small employers whose business practices vary widely. Like home health-care aides, retail clerks and customer service agents, workers like Hill tend to work in small shops and jump frequently from job to job. Many such workers--and in the child-care industry, virtually all--are women.


Such factors have long stymied efforts to organize those who care for children. Less than 4% of the nation’s child-care workers currently belong to unions, according to Marcy Whitebook of the Center for the Child Care Workforce.

But in Philadelphia, the new union is not only looking to succeed where others have failed, it is reaching for something even bolder.

In a scheme that would bend the rules of modern collective bargaining almost beyond recognition, union organizers are trying to bring together the entire industry into a cooperative unit. Rather than organizing workers by workplace and pitting each group against its employer, both employee and employer would be affiliated. Day-care operators would join an employee association to gain access to group insurance and pension plans, as well as to uphold standards that most day-care directors embrace. Employees would join a workers association to improve their pay, benefits and working conditions, slowing turnover and creating a safer, more stable environment for children, advocates say.

The two associations, working together, would agree on a “master contract” that would set wages, benefits and work standards for the industry, and members of both associations would adhere to the contract’s terms. While strikes would remain a possibility, both caregivers and union officials believe that child-care workers’ commitment to children would make them extremely rare.


Revolutionary Concept, Feelings

In its ideal form, the resulting scheme would be a significant step back from the confrontational politics of modern industrial unionism.

“The mold of American unionism has been cracked already,” says McEntee of AFSCME. If experiments like Philadelphia’s child-care workers union succeed, “it’ll break open completely.”

At 26, Hill says her role in the union effort makes her feel like a revolutionary. In seven years with the Montgomery Learning Center, Hill’s wages have risen 38 cents per hour. When she tried to buy a car recently, she showed her pay stub to four different dealers, who looked at her incredulously and sent her away. Hill, who is now looking for a second job to make ends meet, says she is determined to make child care a more viable occupation for herself and her colleagues.


But in the end, she insists, she is an advocate for children.

“Later on, I can say: ‘I helped fight for this; I was a part of something aimed at making children’s lives better.’ I have no plans on leaving child care, because I love the children. But I also need to survive. I sometimes have to go over to my mom’s to eat!”

Philadelphia’s union effort is taking shape at a pivotal moment for child-care workers. The child-care industry’s growth is surging, driven by the steady rise in the number of employed mothers and a new influx of welfare recipients entering the job market. And in an industry long dominated by nonprofit, community-based enterprises, the most dramatic growth in the child-care business is among for-profit chains.

That trend is expected to drive the wages of child-care workers down rather than up. Nationally, a majority of child-care workers make less than $8.50 per hour and roughly a third receive health insurance benefits. But according to a recent study by the Center for the Child Care Workforce, for-profit chains pay the lowest wages in the industry, with most teachers and assistants making $5.50 to $6.25 per hour.


Labor leaders and many in the child-care field believe that these trends have created fertile ground for organizing efforts. Beyond that, they see a golden opportunity in the recent increases in government spending on child care, and public and political attention to the issue. The federal government alone expects to spend as much as $17 billion over the next five years for child care, with states likely to pitch in nearly as much. Beyond that, President Clinton this year proposed adding $21.7 billion more over five years to expand child-care subsidies and tax breaks, to improve the quality of care and to fund after-school care.

With so much new taxpayer funding in place or in prospect, those pressing for child-care workers to unite suggest that their union could become a powerful political voice in the coming debates about how much taxpayers should invest in child care and how the money should be used.

On Capitol Hill and in state legislatures, politicians are quick to propose and approve more subsidized slots in day-care centers, the workers say. But they argue that there currently are few powerful voices lobbying to improve the quality of caregivers’ lives--and hence the quality of care children receive.

“There is a chorus out there trying to raise attention and solve the problem” of child-care employees’ wages, benefits and work conditions, says Lynne Barbee, an organizer for Seattle’s Child Care Union Project, an affiliate of the Service Employees’ Union International. “But the really critical voice of the teachers has been one here, one there, and nobody hears them. That’s what the union is designed to be--that voice really needs to be heard addressing those issues. And it needs to be loud.”


Question of Money Burdens All Concerned

But for parents and many who run day-care centers, the effort to organize child-care workers raises fears and a single, vexing question: Where is the money going to come from? Parents making the median national income of $35,492 already spend 12% of their income on care for their preschool children, according to figures the White House has touted. And day-care directors operate on such narrow financial margins that many regularly dip into their own pockets to buy supplies. While most are quick to volunteer that child-care workers are underpaid, they see demands for better wages and benefits as loads that will ultimately fall on parents or day-care centers. And in most cases, they worry, neither can bear that burden.

“They’re not going to manufacture the money,” said Fred Citron, a critic of the union effort who is executive director of the nonprofit Montgomery Learning Centers in suburban Philadelphia. “There’s no question about it; it will increase costs to parents, because the industry is underpriced.”

That, says Citron, will drive parents away from the kinds of centers that Hill, one of his employees, works for. And ultimately, it could force their closure. “I don’t know if I could keep our doors open,” he says.


On one recent morning, the anxieties of some parents were evident as well. After dropping his son inside, 41-year-old Kevin O’Neill sidled over to two union organizers distributing leaflets outside a small day-care center called Little Learners. O’Neill identified himself as a union member and a shop steward for five years. But that did little to quell his concerns about a child-care union’s effect on his family finances.

“Everybody needs protections,” O’Neill said. “But if the union comes in and the center has to do more, and my weekly payment goes from $104 to $140, I can’t do it.”

Looking Largely to the Government

Vickie Milhouse, the lead organizer for the child-care employees union, has heard all of these concerns and is sympathetic. She says that the money to improve workers’ pay, training and working conditions will have to come largely from government, not from hard-pressed parents or providers struggling to keep their doors open.


From her vantage point among a throng of children, Hill has seen the struggles of parents and day-care operators as well. When she talks about the goals of the union she supports, her language is a far cry from the fiery rhetoric of unions past and present. It is, almost, a call to cooperation--familiar ground for those who care for children but new territory for organized labor.

“These kids are our future,” Hill says. “We have to make it better for them. There’s something wrong with our children, what with these schoolyard shootings and all. It’s time for us to put our foot down, to get together and fight all of this together. This is really a national issue.”