Child Care Workers Are Now a Mighty Force With a Huge New Union. It Only Took 17 Years.

Hamilton Nolan July 28, 2020

Child care workers just won the largest American union election in years. (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

A 17-year orga­niz­ing cam­paign in Cal­i­for­nia cul­mi­nat­ed this week in the suc­cess­ful union­iza­tion of 45,000 child care providers — the largest sin­gle union elec­tion Amer­i­ca has seen in years. The cam­paign is a tan­gi­ble achieve­ment that brings togeth­er union pow­er, polit­i­cal might, and social jus­tice bat­tles for racial and gen­der equal­i­ty. Now, the hard part begins.

Child Care Providers Unit­ed (CCPU), the umbrel­la group now rep­re­sent­ing work­ers across the state, is a joint project of sev­er­al pow­er­ful SEIU and AFSCME locals in Cal­i­for­nia. Those unions divid­ed up the state by coun­ties, and work­ers will be mem­bers of either SEIU or AFSCME depend­ing on where they live, as well as being mem­bers of CCPU. 

The stage for this week’s vote was set last fall, when Cal­i­for­nia gov­er­nor Gavin New­som signed into law leg­is­la­tion that grant­ed bar­gain­ing rights to child care providers, who had pre­vi­ous­ly been legal­ly inel­i­gi­ble for union­iza­tion. Get­ting the law changed took 16 years, dur­ing which time it made it to the governor’s desk twice, but was vetoed — once by Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger, and again by Jer­ry Brown. In the months since New­som signed the bill, the unions used the net­works they had already cre­at­ed over the past two decades to admin­is­ter the elec­tion. The vote, announced yes­ter­day, was 97% in favor of the new union.

The road to win­ning the union was so long that it has seen mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions par­tic­i­pate. Miren Algo­r­ri, a child care provider in San Diego, first became involved because her moth­er, who was in the same line of work, was active in the cam­paign from the very begin­ning. She would go to meet­ings, and I would stay behind and take care of the chil­dren,” Algo­r­ri said. When her moth­er retired, she car­ried on — and last­ed long enough to see her years of work pay off. 

It’s tak­en so long because the work that we do has always been min­i­mized and infan­tilized,” Algo­r­ri said. It’s because of the way soci­ety has seen child care from the very begin­ning of this coun­try. The foun­da­tion was women of col­or car­ing for chil­dren. Doing work that, accord­ing to soci­ety, doesn’t require any skills.” The industry’s work­force in Cal­i­for­nia is most­ly women and about three-fourths peo­ple of col­or, accord­ing to the union. 

Though the bulk of the 17-year cam­paign was focused on the pri­ma­ry goal of win­ning the legal right to col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, it also allowed a dis­parate statewide work­force to orga­nize and fight for their own issues along the way. (The group had a large pool of dues-pay­ing mem­bers even before the law was changed last year.) Although CCPU is brand new as a for­mal union, it already boasts thou­sands of mem­bers who are sea­soned in labor orga­niz­ing and polit­i­cal lob­by­ing. That will like­ly come in handy as the group moves into its next phase: nego­ti­at­ing a con­tract with the state of California. 

Providers who care for low-income chil­dren receive a set reim­burse­ment rate from the state, and rais­ing that fig­ure is one of the top pri­or­i­ties in bar­gain­ing. Algo­r­ri said that in San Diego, she is paid $234 a week to care for an infant for up to 60 hours, and she is oblig­at­ed to pay her assis­tants at least the local min­i­mum wage of $13 per hour. That means she can often end up mak­ing less than min­i­mum wage her­self. She also wants a good health­care plan, which almost all child care providers lack, as well as some way to save for retire­ment. I have been work­ing for 23 years. I have not earned one day of sick leave, and pret­ty much I don’t have a retire­ment plan,” she said. We don’t want a red car­pet. Just a decent living.” 

Max Arias, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of SEIU 99, one of the unions behind CCPU, said that the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, which struck while the union elec­tion was still under­way, offered a chance for child care work­ers to orga­nize to fend off any bud­get cuts, and to fight to get prop­er per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE). The pan­dem­ic has also high­light­ed the fact that these child care work­ers are absolute­ly vital to not only reopen­ing schools, but keep­ing the entire econ­o­my run­ning. Providers have con­tin­ued to work through­out the pan­dem­ic in large part to pro­vide care to the chil­dren of oth­er essen­tial work­ers, so that they can work as well. If child care work becomes eco­nom­i­cal­ly unten­able, the entire sys­tem could grind to a halt. 

Providers will play an out­size role [in school reopen­ing]. A lot of par­ents are going to need sup­port,” said Arias, whose union already rep­re­sents thou­sands of school employ­ees. He ticked off the imme­di­ate needs: fund­ing for liv­able wages and health­care for child care providers, and for ade­quate PPE to keep them safe and oper­a­tional. If we’re going to reopen the econ­o­my, the sta­tus quo fund­ing that exists is not enough,” he said, adding that Cal­i­for­nia needs a tax on bil­lion­aires, some­thing that he believes the pub­lic would sup­port at this moment. Until then, the child care providers will fight for them­selves. They are already build­ing a bar­gain­ing team, and Arias said that he hopes to have a con­tract in place with­in a year, giv­en the urgency of the situation. 

The sheer num­ber of CCPU mem­bers, and their estab­lished con­nec­tions with the high­est lev­el of state offi­cials and nation­al unions, means that they will be a force in Cal­i­for­nia pol­i­tics for years to come. They also rep­re­sent one of the most mean­ing­ful instances of mate­r­i­al progress in labor pow­er for low-wage work­ers of col­or in years. 

For the moment, they have earned the right to sim­ply savor their vic­to­ry. Miren Algo­r­ri brings up a taco shop in her area that has a sign read­ing, Patience is the essence of good Mex­i­can cuisine.” 

It’s the same with us,” she said. We’ve cul­ti­vat­ed that qual­i­ty over the years.” 

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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