California childcare workers score biggest union win of the century
Gwyneth Roberts | Lincoln Journal Star via AP

LOS ANGELES—By an overwhelming margin, and after a 17-year campaign that started with lobbying and ended with successful organizing, AFSCME and the Service Employees scored a joint big win in California, winning recognition to represent at least 40,000 state-employed child care workers there.

Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden immediately congratulated the workers on their victory and declared in a tweet that he wants that victory to be extended nationwide and that he would use his position in the White House to make it easier for childcare workers across the entire nation to unionize. The win in California is the largest number of workers to unionize in a single sweep at any time during the 21st century.

Now comes the next phase: Bargaining with their employer, the state of California, over wages, working conditions and other items on their members’ agenda. Prime among them: getting the state to increase its payments to child care users and centers, since that cash accounts for most of the providers’ income.

The two unions, plus several locals, announced that 97% of workers casting ballots voted for unionizing. Exact vote totals were unavailable.

AFSCME Local 3930/United Domestic Workers and SEIU Locals 99 and 521 joined together in Child Care Providers United, first to get the state legislature to pass, and then to get Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign, AB378, last September. That measure made the state their “employer” to bargain with.

Then they had to organize and win the workers. That took far less time.

“This has been a long time coming,” UDW Assistant Executive Director and AFSCME Vice President Johanna Hester said in a statement. “This win gives 40,000 family child care providers in California the opportunity to bargain for higher pay, better training and increased access to care for every child who needs it.”

The win is important and not just because of the sheer numbers of workers involved, making it the biggest union organizing victory, public or private, in the current century.

It’s also because the overwhelming majority of the child care providers are women of color, and they’re traditionally among the most-exploited workers in the U.S.

That exploitation continues in states unlike California, Minnesota and Illinois, where union lobbying has convinced state legislatures—whose budgets basically pay the freight for much of the child care—to make the state, not individuals, their employers.

Until now, with individuals paying for the care, even using state money, pay was low and benefits were few, elated child care providers told the unions.

UDW member Charlotte Neal told AFSCME that she runs a near 24/7 child care center in Sacramento, and even then, she barely gets by. Now, she believes, things will change, She took that message to state lawmakers before AB378 passed and on the organizing campaign trail since.

“Honestly, I do 24 hours just to make it,” she says. “I can’t even imagine how hard it is for providers who don’t.”

“Twelve of the 14 kids in my care are on subsidy and I can tell you the reimbursement rates are just too low,” Charlotte says. “I come up short every single month. Every month I have to decide which bills I can pay and which I can’t. Am I going to pay for my health care this month? Or food and supplies for the day care? Or gas for pick up and drop off?”

“I’ve been a provider for 18 years and I’ve seen everything,” she says,  “Taking care of kids is an adventure for sure, but I love it. Now we are ready to work with the state to make childcare work better for providers, families and the children we care for.”

“People think of us as just ‘babysitters,’ but we’re so much more than that. We’re educators. Essential workers. We’re putting our lives on the line to care for these kids. Our union means we can fight for the respect and dignity that we deserve,” Miren Algorri of Chula Vista told Child Care Providers United.

The workers not only drew state legislative support to push AB378 through and get Newsom to sign it, but their overwhelming ballot box win drew national notice, from presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. He wants to replicate California’s pro-organizing law nationwide.

“Congratulations to California Child Care Providers United on a successful election. As president, I’ll make it easier for child care workers to unionize — and I’ll provide resources so they earn higher wages while also making care more affordable. #ChildCareIsEssential,”  Biden tweeted.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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