On Monday, 45,000 family child care owners and employees in California voted to join a union in a landslide, the largest union election the country has seen in two decades, according to organizers. In a mail-in secret ballot election, 97 percent voted to join Child Care Providers United (CCPU), a coalition of larger unions Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) that will bargain with the state over how it subsidizes child care.
The vote is the culmination of a 17-year fight to be granted the same right to organize that is available to their counterparts in 11 other states, including Washington and Oregon to the north. The fight started long before Miren Algorri, a family child care provider in San Diego, opened her family child care center. When Algorri first immigrated to the United States from Mexico, she became an assistant to her mother, who ran her own family child care. Algorri watched the children her mother cared for while her mother went to organizing meetings.
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Algorri took up the mantle when she got her license to operate her own child care. In the more than two decades that she’s run her business, she hasn’t been able to take a single hour of paid sick leave. “That’s inhumane, that is criminal,” she said in an interview. She only has health insurance because she’s on someone else’s plan; when she was younger and a single mother, she had no coverage and paid hundreds of dollars to cover her daughter’s medical issues. “I cried myself to sleep countless nights,” she said.
She still can’t afford to offer health insurance to the assistants who now work for her. For providers like Algorri, who accept children whose parents pay for care with state subsidies, the rates are set by the state. With what the state pays her for caring for an infant, she’s barely making $4 an hour. But she needs to pay her assistants at least minimum wage. “They deserve way more than the minimum wage, because they’re shaping the future of California,” she said. But in order to compensate them adequately, that means that many months, after her other expenses, she doesn’t have enough money to pay herself a salary. So, she goes without.
It’s a common theme among family child care operators in California. In a 2019 survey, the top challenge providers said they faced was low wages, followed by receiving few benefits. Nearly one in five that had closed said it was because of the lack of benefits. Nationally, child care workers make on average less than $24,000 a year.
“Being underpaid, underrepresented, overworked is not something that I wish upon anybody,” she said. “We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. That’s what the union means.”
The union vote result was announced on an emotional Zoom call on Monday, and in reaction child care providers across the state took themselves off mute to cheer and clap. “This election is historic,” said Zoila Carolina Toma, a child care provider in Los Angeles, on the call, with a classroom chalkboard and shelves full of supplies in her background. “Together we are unstoppable.”
“I cannot find the words to describe how I’m doing,” Algorri said. “I have been crying, I have been laughing… I’m overwhelmed with joy because I know that wonderful things are coming for us.”
Even before Monday’s vote, 2,500 child care workers in the state had joined SEIU without having the formal right to organize and bargain. Then, in September, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill finally granting providers who receive state subsidies the ability to form a union. “I’m so proud to be a little bit a part of your journey,” Newsom said in a pre-recorded video played on the Zoom call. “You had the moral authority, and…now we have the formal authority enshrined in this historic vote.”
The vote, however, is only the start. “Today the real fight begins,” Algorri said. Now that they voted to unionize, they’ll be able to bargain directly with the state for improvements in the child care system. As they negotiate their first contract, their priorities will be ensuring a livable wage for providers, good health insurance, and a retirement plan. Nancy Harvey, a child care provider of 16 years, said on the Zoom call, “We don’t want to be 78 years old still trying to lead circle time.” They also want to ensure professional development and training.
The child care provider workforce in California is overwhelmingly female and 74 percent people of color, according to the union. “This is not just a victory for union rights and economic justice,” Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME International, said on the Zoom call. “It’s a movement led by women of color. Your win today is an important step toward gender justice and racial justice.”
They also care for many children of color, and as part of their negotiations plan to push the government to expand access to child care. The vision of the union includes “excellent early education for all in California regardless of what you look like, where you come from, where you live, regardless of ability, regardless of language,” said Max Arias, executive director of SEIU Local 99.
All of these things are even more necessary in the middle of the pandemic. Across the country, more than 70 percent of child care providers say they’re incurring substantial new costs for staff, cleaning, and personal protective equipment to operate safely. But they have little wiggle room to cover those expenses. Over 40 percent said they had to close in May. Two out of five say they will have to shutter permanently unless they receive public assistance.
Many of the union members are already sick with COVID-19, some even hospitalized and intubated, according to union leaders who were on the Zoom call. Algorri has kept her doors open throughout the crisis to care for the children of essential workers, even as many of her families lost their jobs and had to keep their children home. She’s had to implement new procedures — such as asking parents to bring their own pens for sign in and having the children change into a child care-specific set of shoes — and spend a lot more on personal protective equipment and extra cleaning supplies. She wants a contract that will ensure providers keep getting paid if they close due to the coronavirus crisis, and will offer them extra support to keep their doors open.
“We’re not asking. We’re going to demand,” Toma noted. “It’s time to demand what we deserve, what our families deserve, what the people in California deserve.”
“I know wonderful things are coming our way,” Algorri said. “I’m just excited.”