California Allows Child Care Workers to Unionize

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 4, 2019.
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This week, after a 16-year battle in California, Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation granting collective-bargaining rights to more than 40,000 child care providers. California now joins 11 other states—New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Minnesota, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island—in allowing child care providers to negotiate with the state over wages, health care, and other job protections.

“I was at the bill signing, and it was so wonderful,” says Charlotte Neal, a Sacramento-based child care provider of almost 19 years. “It’s such an awesome feeling to see the work that you put in actually happen, and happen before your eyes.”

The legislation, Assembly Bill 378, applies to the roughly 40,000 child care workers in California who provide services to families on government subsidy. The workers will now be able to bargain with California like other public employees, although they will not become state workers themselves. The legislation also allows unions to attend orientation meetings organized by the state, where they can make their case to the workers for becoming union members.

For Neal, who runs a 24-hour child care center out of her home, getting to negotiate finances with the state is her top priority. “We need to get resources for providers so we can continue to give quality care,” she says. “I know for myself we struggle just to make ends meet.”

Providers say they want to sit down with the state to talk about child care fees, quality programming, professional development, and confusing regulations. A 2018 survey of state child care providers found low wages was the top challenge to keeping centers open, with many providers saying supports like a network of substitutes, access to paid sick days, and cost-of-living increases would make their lives a lot easier.

Patricia Moran, who runs her own home-based child care in San Jose, says access to health insurance would benefit not only her but also the children she cares for. “We will have more focus on the job, and be able to have peace of mind,” she says. Moran believes providers like herself would also go to more professional-development trainings if they didn’t have to be frequently adding extra jobs to pay the bills.

Beverly Yu, assistant legislative director for the United Domestic Workers/AFSCME Local 3930, says providers have been able to share some thoughts about their jobs in quarterly meetings with the California Department of Education and the California Department of Social Services. But these meetings, Yu points out, have really been held only due to the state’s goodwill, not because state officials are required to listen to workers.

“Winning collective bargaining is truly a game changer,” she says. “Not only do providers now have a voice to cover issues like wages, they now also have the ability to negotiate a union-sponsored trust fund for health care benefits and they have tools now in front of them to be able to effectuate real change at the table.”

The majority of child care providers in California are women of color and tend to be older than women in the state workforce writ large. They are also more linguistically diverse than the California adult population, and nearly two-thirds of them work alone.

One key aspect of the new legislation is the requirement that states must give unions contact information for the tens of thousands of home care providers who work with children on subsidy. This will make it much easier for UDW/AFSCME and SEIU to reach out to workers, and potentially organize them into unions. (UDW/AFSCME and SEIU have divided up jurisdiction of the state, so child care providers in 39 counties would join the former, and those in the other 19 counties would be in SEIU. They all will be part of the same bargaining unit under the banner of Child Care Providers United, or CCPU.) Absent the years of organizing and lobbying by the unions, it’s unlikely that the child care providers could have persuaded the legislature—or any governor—to grant them collective-bargaining rights.

Union advocates are calling this both the largest current organizing effort in the country to move working women out of poverty, and the largest organizing effort going on in the country, period.

Currently about 2,500 California child care providers are union members, and according to Jono Shaffer, a California SEIU organizer who helped lead the Child Care Providers United campaign, thousands more have already signed union cards calling for an election.

“The state has never had a full list of child care providers receiving subsidy,” he tells The American Prospect. “The state knows how much it spends, and it sends money to agencies all over, and those agencies pay out to providers, but the state itself doesn’t know who the providers are. Now as part of the law the state has to develop a list.”

Moran, the San Jose child care provider, says as she went canvassing to build up support for collective bargaining, she found some providers who just were too doubtful to believe it could ever happen, based on the failure to bring about real change for so many years.

“Now skeptical providers will see it’s possible,” Moran says.

Neal agrees that finally winning collective-bargaining rights will make it a lot easier to convince those who were previously on the fence.

It’s been a long journey for California child care providers, who have been trying to win these rights for the last 16 years.

Gray Davis, a Democrat, was serving as governor in the early 2000s, and “the feeling was we’d be able to move this child care legislation and Gray would sign it,” says Shaffer. But then Davis got recalled, and he was replaced with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, who proceeded to veto the legislation repeatedly over his eight years in office.

“Schwarzenegger would say all these nice things, and the child care providers would meet with him and he never wanted to seem like a bad guy, but then at the eleventh hour he would always veto the bill,” Shaffer explained.

Then Jerry Brown, a Democrat, was elected governor, and child care providers thought their chances looked good again, especially since one of Brown’s first acts as governor in the 1970s was to extend collective-bargaining rights to California farmworkers.

“People thought we were good, but then the bill got reintroduced and he vetoed it,” says Shaffer. Brown explained that given the state’s budget challenges, he was “reluctant to embark on a program of this magnitude and potential cost.”

“What folks have told me is that this was during the heart of the recession, the state was in deep financial trouble, and he was just unwilling to have another group of workers that would be bargaining with the state,” says Shaffer.

The big differences this time around were twofold. First, California’s macroeconomy is booming, creating a surplus of $21 billion in this year’s state budget. Second, Brown was succeeded as governor this year by fellow Democrat Gavin Newsom, who was elected in 2018 and has emphasized that boosting early child care in California would be a top priority. To that end, the 2019-2020 state budget includes a $2.3 billion increase for early-childhood programs and supports.

“Newsom is a father of young children, and I think he’s much more personally connected to these issues than past leaders,” says Shaffer, noting that former Governor Jerry Brown had no kids. “Workers need to organize, struggle, and create the environment,” he adds, but Newsom “is an example of how elected leaders can really lead. They need to be able to take risks around some of these critical pieces, and Newsom has shown he’s willing to do that.”

One thing Newsom and union advocates agree on is that making more investments in the early-childhood workforce can bring about positive changes not just for providers, but also for parents, children, and ultimately, the state’s economy.

Newsom and the legislature increased spending because they concluded that the current level was too low to meet the needs of families and too low to retain high-quality workers. Public subsidies also do not go far enough: According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, approximately 1.6 million children in California are eligible for a subsidy but cannot obtain one.

The number of home-based child care programs has declined sharply since 2008, as California’s investments have focused on center-based care. But home-based programs can offer more flexible hours for working parents, and when there are fewer available spots for children, more parents are forced to drop out of the labor market altogether.

Advocates looked to research on Washington D.C.’s preschool expansion, which found that the increased enrollment in early-childhood education led to a 10 percentage point increase in mothers’ labor force participation. For low-income mothers, it was a 15 percentage point increase.

“An increase of this magnitude among women with young children in California could potentially result in hundreds of thousands of additional workers joining the labor force,” stated authors of a UC Berkeley Labor Center report released in May. While not all mothers want to participate in the workforce, surveys suggest many would choose to if they could afford it. One recent poll found half of all female homemakers said they would look for a job if they could secure affordable child care.

The law takes effect on January 1, and California Child Care Providers United will be filing for an election in 2020 to become a certified bargaining representative with the state. If they win, collective bargaining could start soon after that.

“I am fired up,” says Neal. “I am ready to go to the next step.”

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