(WOMENSENEWS)–After taking other people’s children into her home for over 20 years, Nancy Wyatt, a family-care provider in California’s San Fernando Valley, says she has no money set aside for retirement. She also pays high premiums for health insurance.

Wyatt is part of a small but growing number of child-care workers who have joined unions within the last five years to try to boost wages, benefits and job security for one of the country’s lowest paying occupations. The unions are forming amid growing child-care demand. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 65 percent of women with children under age 5 were in the work force.

“We need to have a much bigger and powerful voice than we’ve had on our own,” says Wyatt.

Barbara Tinsley agrees. She ran a day care out of her home for seven years and started the Family Child Care Educators Association Inc. in Alta Dena, Calif., to bring together other family providers.

First National Umbrella

Amid this kind of small-scale organizing, the United Child Care Union, based in Philadelphia and affiliated with the powerful American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, got going in 1998.

Led by two women who worked in the child-care field, it is trying to bring numerous child-care groups under one umbrella. It is the first and only union to solely represent child-care employees. In addition to amplifying workers’ collective voice it pushes for better wages and benefits and more government provided child-care funding.

The quest for more public dollars comes as many states are cutting their budgets. In California, for instance, the union is going up against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to cut subsidies for child care.

“Our goal is to get more resources into the child care system,” says Denise Dowell, co-president and director of organizing for the United Child Care Union.

Dowell believes every worker deserves health and retirement benefits, paid personal leave and sick time and access to education and training. In addition to helping members define their needs and negotiate to get them met, Dowell says the union will work with employers to increase state subsidies, speed reimbursements from the state and find more resources for training.

The union is focused on government-supported, low-income child-care programs, such as Head Start, because it believes there is where it has the best shot at raising working standards without passing on new costs to parents. “It’s really about getting the political clout that we need to change the system so it works better for not just workers but children and families,” says Dowell.

First Success in 2001

The union’s first success came in 2001, when it signed a contract with the Allegheny Child Care Academy, a private center based in Philadelphia with 70 sites in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Workers received guaranteed work hours, paid in-service days, more paid sick and vacation days and a 17.5-percent raise over five years. And Allegheny–by shifting resources within the company–was able to meet all these conditions without raising fees for parents.

Since 2002, the union has been organizing in California, where it received several inquiries from family child care providers. Already, a dozen family-care associations have affiliated with the union.

Historically, the child care industry–almost entirely female–has had high job turnover, minimal benefits and low wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, child care workers in 2002 averaged $8.32 an hour, less than aerobics instructors and manicurists.

The bureau does not count so-called family providers, who are self-employed and care for children dropped off in their homes. After expenses, such providers often make less than minimum wage. Nancy Wyatt cites a study in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles showing that workers like herself earn less than $5 an hour after covering such expenses as food, books and toys.

Nevertheless, unionized child care workers are rare. The Center for the Child Care Workforce, based in Washington, D.C., estimates that only as much as 5 percent of the nation’s child-care workers–estimated at more than 2 million–belong to a union.

Stymied by Scattered Work Force

In the past, unions have been stymied by the industry’s vast and fragmented work force. According to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, 550,000 child care specialists work in day care centers and pre-schools and 650,000 licensed family providers run home-based businesses. Another 1.2 million workers are paid relatives and unlicensed caretakers.

The American Federation of Teachers represents 12,000 to 15,000 child care workers primarily in public schools and Head Start centers, according to spokesperson Leslie Getzinger. The Service Employees International Union has been organizing child care workers through its local districts in Chicago, Washington State and Rhode Island, according to Joe Simoes, head organizer for District 1199, based in Providence, R.I.

According to Dowell, a combination of naivete and bit-by-bit success propelled her union to attempt its national reach. It has two divisions, one for child-care centers and one for family providers. Those employed by centers–both nonprofit and for-profit–include teachers, assistants, aides, cooks, maintenance workers and clerical staff.

No Staff Polarization Intended

Dowell was once a director of a child-care center and she says many employers–both managers and owners–would like to give more to their employees but are constrained by the industry’s scarce resources.

“We are not going to present them with a bunch of demands they can’t meet,” she says. “We will partner with them to bring more resources into the system to improve jobs and benefits.”

Organizing family providers into a union has presented its own challenges. Because they are self-employed, they have no employer of record, which the National Labor Relations Board requires in order for them to form a union and enter into collective bargaining.

To get around that, the union has helped propose legislation to the California senate that would set up regional agencies that could serve as the employer.

Simoes, the organizer with the Service Employees International Union, faced a similar challenge when trying to organize Rhode Island’s 1,300 family child-care providers. The union–which did not ask the United Child Care Union to step
in–appealed to the state’s labor relations board.

The board ruled that the workers could be considered state employees because they are regulated by the state and as state employees they could join a union. Governor Don Carcieri appealed the decision and on April 19 a superior court judge issued a stay on the board’s decision.

Luchina Fisher is a freelance writer and producer in the New York area.

For more information:

The United Child Care Union:

Service Employees International Union–
Head Start and Child Care:

The American Federation of Teachers–
Center for the Child Care Workforce: