YMCA Childcare Workers Just Went On Strike. Here’s Why.

Rebecca Burns March 5, 2018

(SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana/Facebook)

When Vivian Clark got a job with a Chica­go-area Head Start pro­gram 15 years ago, it seemed like the step­ping stone” her fam­i­ly had been wait­ing for. Her son, then aged 9, had already gone through the fed­er­al­ly fund­ed preschool pro­gram when Clark was offered a job as a part-time admin­is­tra­tive assis­tant for a Head Start pro­gram admin­is­tered by the YMCA. In addi­tion to pro­vid­ing ear­ly edu­ca­tion and social ser­vices for low-income chil­dren, many Head Start agen­cies have expand­ed their focus into pro­vid­ing edu­ca­tion and job oppor­tu­ni­ties for par­ents, often as employ­ees of the program.

Though grate­ful for the oppor­tu­ni­ty, Clark had to live with a glar­ing con­tra­dic­tion: The anti-pover­ty pro­gram pro­vid­ed her with a job, but it bare­ly paid her min­i­mum wage. When she start­ed the job, she says she made $7.50 an hour. Clark now makes $11.15 but does not receive health insur­ance or paid time off. They’ve nick­el and dimed me for years,” Clark tells In These Times.

On March 1, Clark was among rough­ly 130 Chica­go-area Head Start work­ers who went on a one-day strike over alleged unfair labor prac­tices. Low wages and ben­e­fits were among the issues that prompt­ed child­care and sup­port staff at Head Start pro­grams man­aged by the YMCA of Met­ro­pol­i­tan Chica­go to join the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) in 2012. Now, SEIU says that the YMCA has retal­i­at­ed against work­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing in union activ­i­ty and failed to pro­vide infor­ma­tion dur­ing nego­ti­a­tions that have been ongo­ing since the work­ers’ con­tract expired on Decem­ber 31.

At a ral­ly in front of the YMCA’s head­quar­ters, strik­ing child­care work­ers described how their col­leagues took out pay­day loans or drove for Uber in order to make ends meet, despite the agency’s stat­ed mission.

The Y claims they want to dis­rupt the cycle of pover­ty,’” said Lin­da Aguilar, a Mas­ter teacher who said she was strug­gling to make her stu­dent loan pay­ments and search­ing for a sec­ond job. But it’s not lost on me that they’re employ­ing most­ly Black and Brown women, and they’re pay­ing them pover­ty wages.”

The YMCA of Met­ro­pol­i­tan Chica­go said in a state­ment that it is con­tin­u­ing to bar­gain with the union:

Giv­en that nego­ti­a­tions are ongo­ing, we were sur­prised that SEIU lead­ers decid­ed to call a one-day strike by YMCA union employ­ees on Thurs­day, March 1. Because of SEIU’s deci­sion, the YMCA was forced to can­cel … pro­grams [on Thurs­day], result­ing in dis­rup­tion of ser­vices to the fam­i­lies in our programs.

Orga­niz­ing a gen­dered workforce

One-third of Amer­i­can fam­i­lies now spend at least 20 per­cent of their income on child­care. But even as costs soar, child­care work­ers remain among the low­est-paid in the Unit­ed States, with a medi­an hourly wage of $10.18. Near­ly half are on some form of pub­lic assis­tance, and many are unable to afford day­care for their own children. 

Once large­ly ignored by orga­nized labor as too dif­fi­cult and cost­ly to union­ize, the past two decades have seen a con­cert­ed effort by major unions to orga­nize child­care work­ers in Head Start and pri­vate day­care cen­ters, as well as home-based providers. Yet strikes remain a rare occur­rence among the over­whelm­ing­ly woman work­force, which must con­tend with atom­iza­tion as well a deeply gen­dered expec­ta­tion placed on care work­ers” such as nurs­es, teach­ers and domes­tic work­ers: the notion that care work should be pro­vid­ed for love rather than mon­ey,” as described by fem­i­nist econ­o­mists Paula Eng­land, Nan­cy Fol­bre and Car­rie Leana.

This ten­sion has sur­faced fre­quent­ly in labor orga­niz­ing by work­ers at Head Start, launched in1965 as part of Lyn­don B. Johnson’s Great Soci­ety” pro­grams. In addi­tion to teach­ing young chil­dren under the aus­pices of a fed­er­al anti-pover­ty pro­gram, Head Start teach­ers and staff are direct­ly employed by local, mis­sion-based agen­cies that often describe their pro­gram­ming as a labor of love. After work­ers struck over pay and ben­e­fits in Long Island and Newark, N.J. in the late 1980s, Head Start agen­cies even mount­ed a legal chal­lenge against their work­ers’ rights to orga­nize, an argu­ment the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board rebuffed in 1998.

Labor strife at Head Start inten­si­fied thanks to cuts to the pro­gram begin­ning under the George W. Bush admin­is­tra­tion. In 2002, Head Start agen­cies in Boston fought for an exemp­tion from the city’s liv­ing wage ordi­nance, which required city con­trac­tors to pay more than dou­ble the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage. One agency head told the Boston Globe, We would be hap­py to pay it if some­one would give us the money.”

Strik­ing YMCA Head Start work­ers in Chica­go say they are skep­ti­cal that the mon­ey sim­ply isn’t there. The union empha­sizes that CEO Dick Mal­one makes rough­ly $300 an hour. (Accord­ing to the Chica­go YMCA’s 2016 tax fil­ings, Mal­one took home a salary of $506,765 and $80,000 in bonus and incen­tive compensation.)

Both sides are back at the bar­gain­ing table this week, and the union hopes to make the case that in order to ful­fill its mis­sion, the YMCA has to treat its own work­ers better.

The YMCA has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to lead the child­care indus­try,” says Tahi­ti Hamer, a Head Start teacher at the Orr YMCA who says she makes $15.50 an hour, despite hav­ing a bachelor’s degree in ear­ly-child­hood edu­ca­tion with a spe­cial cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in infants and tod­dlers. Instead, they’re lag­ging behind.”

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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