Organizing A Childcare Union In Philadelphia

By Peter Pitegoff

What an awesome gathering!” Kim Cook, a union organizer from Seattle, smiled as she looked around the meeting room of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees in Philadelphia in mid-June. Just one month earlier, this affiliate of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) had chartered the new United Child Care Union.

Cook and two dozen others from around the nation met for a day-long strategy session on organizing Philadelphia’s childcare industry. In the room were childcare experts, union and community organizers, economic development specialists, and policy advocates. Childspace Cooperative Development Inc. (CCDI), a Philadelphia-based developer of worker-centered childcare enterprises, cosponsored the gathering with a local think-tank. CCDI is a driving force behind this unusual organizing campaign, mobilizing employers and employees alike.

CCDI is best known for developing worker-owned daycare centers that create better childcare jobs and careers, while giving parents and community residents a say in their operation. Its strategy is also one of “replication”: CCDI builds on the knowledge gained creating one enterprise to form others within the same industry. Two Childspace centers in Philadelphia were the start, and now there are centers in Denver and the San Francisco Bay Area.

The unionizing campaign reflects how worker ownership can lead to broader strategies of change. By allying with unions, CCDI and its worker cooperative affiliates provide labor with an entry point for organizing the childcare workforce. They envision building a movement to empower childcare providers, in a service sector atomized by underfunding, low wages, few benefits, and limited career opportunities. It’s a natural alliance.

Childcare employers and the union face a shared dilemma, due in part to inadequate funding. “You can’t just organize workers to get more money because there is no more money,” explains Denise Dowell, CCDI’s Director of Organizing and Training and a leader in the Philadelphia campaign. Simply organizing and bargaining for better wages and working conditions in the childcare context makes little sense – even childcare employers who want to do the right thing can hardly afford to make ends meet. Shannah Kurland, a community organizer with Rhode Island’s Direct Action for Rights & Equality (DARE), suggests that the industry as a whole has to change. “You have to look from the outset on how to structure the childcare industry – not just how to organize the workers.” Deeper change requires more than a new union.

That’s where the idea of organizing the employers comes in. With an employer perspective and a commitment to workers, CCDI can take the lead in building an employers’ association alongside the workers’ union, an initiative the brand new union endorsed at its founding convention in May. CCDI can serve as a potential bridge between employers and the nascent union. What would organizing the employers achieve? The association – composed of owners of for-profit centers, directors of nonprofit centers, and self-employed home daycare providers – might create pooled benefit funds allowing all childcare providers in the area to buy affordable health insurance or pensions. It might bargain a master contract with the new union (as do employers in Seattle), or at least agree upon baseline standards. Together with the union, the employers could fight government cutbacks and wrest sufficient support for childcare workers and the daycare centers that employ them.

Yet the unlikely alliances reflected at the Philadelphia meeting present daunting challenges, and not just the ones arising from labor-management tensions. The divergent interests of corporate chain daycare, community-based nonprofits and home-based caregivers will make organizing a single employers’ group difficult. On the labor side, the persistent competition among unions organizing the same workforce, and the checkered relationship between unions and worker-owned companies in the past, suggest some uneasy combinations. Unions and worker cooperatives often operate in two different worlds, largely oblivious of one another. As for the unions, it is no small achievement that the June strategy session witnessed real cooperation among organizers from a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local in Seattle, a United Auto Workers local in western Massachusetts, and an AFSCME local in Minnesota, all engaged in organizing childcare workers, as well as national staff from AFSCME and SEIU. The headof the AFL-CIO’s Working Women’s Department and the organizing director of the national Center for the Child Care Workforce both came from Washington D.C. to join the meeting. Add the employer perspective of Childspace managers and their allies in finance and economic development, and the result is a potentially powerful but volatile mix.

Despite notable success stories, worker ownership is not an end in itself. For many of us in the field of worker ownership in the 1970s and 1980s, “worker capitalism” was never our goal. We wanted instead to alter power relations and apply principles of democracy to the workplace, not just putshares of stock in the hands of workers. Today, the childcare union effort stands out as an example of worker cooperatives committed to economic andsocial change beyond their own enterprises.

Peter Pitegoff is Professor and Vice Dean at the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Law. Reprinted with permission from the joint issue of Dollars & Sense and Geo, Sept./Oct. 1998.

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