credit: uftproviders.org
Home day care providers and union organizers celebrate Gov. Spitzer's announcement that he has granted union rights to providers.  
   

The public-sector union AFSCME and AFT, which represents teachers across the nation, won a big victory late last week when New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed an executive law that gives bargaining rights to the city’s 28,000 home child care providers and the more than 20,000 home care workers outside of New York City. Lots of people think workers don’t join unions because they don’t want to. The nation’s flawed federal labor laws are a big reason standing in workers’ way. But this example illustrates yet another reason why U.S. workers are hampered from easily forming unions. New York’s day care workers, like home care workers in California and Illinois, and others across the nation, can’t just automatically form unions.

The day care workers, who, on average, are paid less than $19,000 a year and have no pensions, health insurance or paid sick days, first needed a law that gave them an employer—in this case the state’s Office of Children and Family Services—before they could join a union and negotiate a contract. The New York United Federation of Teachers/AFT (UFT/AFT) will work with the day care workers, and AFSCME’s Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) will reach out to the home care workers.

UFT/AFT Vice President Michelle Bodden has worked on securing this victory, and she’s guest blogging for me today to share why this law is so important.

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On May 11, Gov. Spitzer came to New York City for a press conference on Labor History Month. He talked about the state’s grand past in the union movement, and at the end of his remarks, almost as an afterthought, he told the assembled group that he had signed an executive order giving home child care providers the right to unionize. The room erupted with cheering and clapping—we were witnessing a moment in the history of the labor movement in New York.

Why is this so important? For the day care providers first: In New York City as a group, they are overwhelmingly women, largely African American and Latina (40 percent speak Spanish as their first language) and grossly undervalued. The providers care for the children of families transitioning from welfare to work, and many times their own situations are as difficult as the families they serve. The subsidies they are paid are based on the age of the child, $150 per week for a toddler, divided over a five-day week with hours from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., which equals $3 per hour (of course, if a parent is late, the hours are longer).

Very limited funds are available for food, so providers often use money from their own pockets for food along with diapers, toys and educational materials. The bureaucracies involved in licensing and payments are immense and difficult to navigate—we’ve heard many horror stories. And to top it off, payments are often made late or not at all for a wide variety of bureaucratic reasons. Even before the executive order, we won more than $150,000 in back pay owed to providers for up to two years. That these women continue to do this work with all of these hurdles is a testament to their dedication and love of children. 

Providers are considered independent contractors, although they have little to no ability to determine the terms of their work. The rates are set by the state, the licensing requirements are set by the state and administered by the city. They answer to the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, the New York City Health Department and the New York City Fire Department. No single person can move so many agencies. That’s why, the executive order allowing providers to unionize means they can collectively have their voices heard around issues that are critical to their livelihood.

What does this mean for the UFT? Our union undertook the drive to unionize home child care providers for two main reasons—educationally, this is an extraordinary opportunity to work with children’s first teachers. Providers see children before they come into the public school system, and many of them want to prepare those children for success. Early grade teachers have a good sense of the skills and background experiences that make the most difference with young children. It is a natural mesh to combine the providers with the public school teachers and create a seamless transition for youngsters with the best preparation possible.

The UFT Teachers Center offers free classes for providers on infant/toddler development through preschoolers. The classes are extremely popular because providers want to learn more about creating high quality educational environments—they want their youngsters to succeed.  Eventually, we can create a real leveling of the playing field—making a pathway for low-income students to gain the kind of rich vocabulary and other prerequisites that bode for success in school and in life.

The other reason is exactly the same as the reason why this is a great event for the union movement in general: It is our mission to improve the lives of working people, not just the members we have now, but all working people. Many of the gains of labor, from the minimum wage to a defined workweek, extend to millions of workers who are not in unions.

Here with the providers is the opportunity to improve the lives of an undervalued, underappreciated, yet essential group of workers whose work benefits us all. It is not only the responsibility of a union to enable workers to form unions when they want to do so—it is our privilege to do so. This is a living demonstration of the ideals that are the core of the union movement: the power of workers to join together and collectively improve their quality of life and dignity at work.