- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 20, 2002

Exasperated day care workers are starting to organize across the nation, seeking to increase wages in one of the nation's lowest-paid, least-stable professions.
In Stamford, Conn., child care employees staged a four-week strike, disrupting the lives of 600 families as unionization proved confrontational. In contrast, newly unionized workers in Seattle have teamed up with their employers in a joint effort to improve job conditions and win more state funding.
"In child care, there isn't a management with deep pockets," said Faith Wohl, president of the New York-based Child Care Action Campaign. "The money is coming from working families who are already spending more than they can afford."
The average full-time child care worker earns roughly $16,000 a year, less than tree trimmers, gas station attendants and hotel clerks, according to federal statistics.
The industry is huge more than 2 million workers, 98 percent of them women, caring at one point or another for roughly half of America's preschoolers. The annual staff turnover at child care centers is about 30 percent.
"It's not the union against the employer. Most providers, if they could do better for their workers, they would do it tomorrow," said Denise Dowell, an organizer in the Philadelphia area for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Organizing is complicated by the high turnover, an aversion by many workers to job actions that would unsettle children, and the prevalence of relatively small, independently owned centers.
But the effort will gain national momentum in the near future, predicted Karen Nussbaum, assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO labor federation.
"There is concern here among child care workers about working conditions. That's going on all over the country," she said.
In North Carolina, home to one of the most ambitious efforts to boost pay, the average hourly wage of $7.50 is so low that one-third of child care workers has received public assistance. Utah's Office of Child Care last month described wages as "horrible," averaging $6.50 an hour in some areas.
"Sometimes, these people are left all alone in a room full of children with no break," said Genan Anderson, professor of early-childhood education at Utah Valley State College. "If they can make more money waiting tables, they are going to leave."
Overall public spending on child care has increased significantly during the past five years, enabling more low-income families to obtain care. But states are facing deficits, and advocacy groups say the recent infusion of funds did little to ease the wage problem.
"The dollars haven't translated into stabilization of the work force," said Marci Young, executive director of the Center for the Childcare Workforce. "In essence, we've been expending a bad system. That's not good for the staff; it's certainly not good for children."
Mrs. Young's organization is helping plan a "virtual strike" for May 1, urging child care workers nationwide to join in awareness-raising campaigns that would stop short of a real walkout.
The effort to organize day care workers in Stamford began in 1999, when a group of workers contacted the United Auto Workers about unionization at Child Care Center Inc., a nonprofit operation that serves 1,300 children at 27 sites in Stamford.
In a March 2000 election, employees voted 125-50 to join the union, and contract bargaining began. Both management and workers knew there was no possibility of raising fees for parents, so the union lobbied state legislators for more funding to help boost wages.
The lobbying failed, and the bargaining turned bitter.
With a strike likely, the union convened a meeting of parents and explained its rationale.
"What was amazing, the parents felt extremely angry about the low salaries of the teachers," said UAW organizer Julie Kushner. "They were glad we were standing up for higher wages, and it was the lowest-income parents who were the most outspoken."
The union gave parents two weeks' warning and went on strike Dec. 3. About half of the 175 employees continued to work, but the walkout forced Child Care Center to halt care for about half of its 1,300 children, making parents scramble for alternative arrangements.
With the help of federal mediators, the two sides finally settled on a contract in January that includes a no-strike provision.

Staff writer Kristina Stefanova contributed to this report.

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