Monday, February 13, 2006

More Home Child-Care

Unions surge in low-paying child care industry
By David Crary
The Associated Press

The living room teems with toys and picture books; six small children are snacking around a tot-sized table. Yet Norma Tetrault's home, as much as any union hall or picket line, represents a pivotal front for America's embattled labor movement.

Women like Tetrault, working from home, have become foot soldiers in a difficult but potentially momentous nationwide campaign to unionize hundreds of thousands of low-paid child care workers.

Unprecedented breakthroughs have come recently in Illinois and a few other states, while in Rhode Island -- despite a strong union legacy -- there were painful setbacks last year. Tetrault, echoing the resolve of union leaders nationwide, vows to persevere.

"We're in this for the long haul," she says, standing with feet in two rooms so she can grant an interview and still keep watch on her charges. "Every time you take five steps forward, you take 10 steps back. But I'm not quitting."

Nationally, child care providers are among the lowest paid of U.S. workers, often earning less than $10 an hour. A recent federal survey listed only 18 other types of jobs, out of 770, that paid less.

The low pay, lack of health insurance and other benefits, and a sense of being disrespected has produced a legion of workers open to unionization as the most viable strategy for gaining clout. Faced with declining overall membership, major unions see child care providers as a vital source of potential growth.

"This is a very untraditional area in terms of organizing," said Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is at the forefront of efforts to represent the providers.

"It's mostly women, working in their own homes," Burger said. "The fact that they're wanting to come together and have a collective voice is remarkable. It shows their determination and creativity."

Reliable nationwide statistics are elusive when it comes to child care employment, partly because of high turnover and because many providers are unlicensed and care for just a few children. The Center for the Child Care Workforce estimates about 550,000 people are employed by child care centers and another 650,000 home-based providers; the portion of them who are unionized recently has surged past 10 percent.

The biggest breakthrough came in Illinois, where SEIU last year won the right to represent 49,000 in-home providers serving children whose fees are covered by state and federal funds. In December, after Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich ordered the state to negotiate, SEIU obtained a $250 million, 39-month contract that will raise providers' daily rates an average of 35 percent and eventually bring them health coverage.

It was the first such statewide contract. Even at a time when many states are struggling to cut costs and meet rising health care bills, it sparked hope among union leaders of similar gains elsewhere.

In Washington state, about 10,000 in-home providers voted last year to join SEIU. They hope to gain collective bargaining rights this year.


No comments: