Legacy Story: Will Unionization Improve Child Care? (1990)

The following story appeared in the February 14-26, 1990 issue of Minnesota Women’s Press. Twice per month in 2024, MWP is uplifting select pieces from our 39-year archive with a focus on longstanding issues. In January, as the Minnesota legislature recommences, our focus is on affordable and accessible child care in Minnesota, where we have some of the highest costs in the nation. 

“It’s a microcosm of society — it’s women and children last.”

Sue Dicker, child care organizer for District 65, UAW, is talking about the providers and recipients of daycare in Minnesota. The workforce, 97 percent female, is among the lowest paid 10 percent of all wage earners in the United States, according to “Who Cares For Kids? A Report On Child Care Providers,” prepared by the National Commission on Working Women in Washington, D.C.

Sue Dicker. Photo Photo Mary Lee Slettehaugh

According to Dicker, low pay and minimal or no benefits lead to higher turnover, low self-esteem, high stress, and early burnout in daycare staff. For the children, this means a constant shift of faces as caregivers leave and are replaced, and inadequate child/teacher ratios before replacements can be found — leading to lower standards of care.

According to “Annette” a 25-year-old teacher for a Twin Cities based chain of daycare centers (who doesn’t want her real name used), safety and hygiene are the first casualties. When there isn’t time or staff for basic tasks like washing children’s hands and disinfecting toys, diseases spread, she explained, and added, too, that, “Accidents happen when there isn’t enough staff.”

Annette won’t leave her own 16-month-old daughter at the center when staff is short, despite the discount she receives on the cost, unless she’s working there that shift. When she goes to classes at a local community college, she drops her daughter off with a different provider.

Sue Dicker believes the solution to many daycare problems lies in unionization of the workers. She’s one of the driving forces behind a conference for caregivers scheduled for Saturday, February 17 at Hubert Humphrey Center at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. 

What a union might do for child care is only one item on the agenda of “Child Care Workers Uniting For Professional Recognition.” There’ll also be workshops, guest speakers, videos and resource booths. 

“This idea is to bring together people who are committed to the field,” said Dicker, herself a former child care teacher and administrator, who’s seen the problems from a parent’s perspective as well.

“There seem to be people out there who are interested,” Dicker said, but admitted it’s hard to organize them. “People are scattered and isolated … and the turnover is so great.” She hopes coming together at the conference will “Show them they’re not alone.”

“Annette” will be there, working not just for better wages and benefits, but better adherence to staff/child ratios, and better overall care. She makes it clear she’s not just asking for more money. She knew the field was low paying when she chose it. “I’m here to give good care to the children.”

But she’s found it hard to do sometimes, when the person she works for seems more intent on keeping costs down. “The owners or directors need to care about the care we’re giving the children.” Her current boss, she says, worries when there are too many people working and not enough children, instead of when there are too many children and not enough staff.

Things are different in the nonprofit sector. With the motivation to make money removed, conditions are better for both staff and children. Wages make up about 80 percent of non-profit center budgets, versus 40 percent of the for-profits, according to Sue Dicker.

And according to a national child care staffing study, “The most important predictor of the quality of care children receive, among adult work environment variables, is staff wages.”

Figures compiled by the Minnesota Child Care Workers Alliance show the average wage of this state’s child care workers is $5.10 per hour, and their yearly pay averages less than $10,127. (Elementary school teacher starting salaries in Minnesota are around $16,000 annually.) Almost 50 percent of child care workers have four-year college degrees.

Along with low pay, there are limited benefits. A 1988 special report of the Minnesota Women’s Consortium states that only 16 percent of the child care centers in the state offer health care benefits, 13 percent have retirement plans, 48 percent have sick leave and paid vacations and 49 percent have holidays off. Over half the workers are part-time employees not eligible for benefits at all. “Two of every three child care workers earn below the poverty level,” the report states.

Dicker believes the way to improve conditions is through collective bargaining. Since she took the newly created District 65 position 16 months ago, she’s had some success. 

Carole Heyda and student. Photo Mary Lee Slettehaugh

At the non-profit Clinton Child Care Center in Minneapolis, Carole Heyda is the new union steward. Workers at Clinton signed a contract on November 21, [1989], following negotiations Heyda characterized as “very, very peaceful.” The biggest difference since then, she says laughingly, is that her co-workers ask her a lot of questions about union matters that she can’t always answer because she hasn’t had her shop steward training yet — but she’s managing. 

Clinton workers received a negotiated raise this month though, and the center now pays 60 percent of the health benefit cost, up from 50 percent. So far this hasn’t resulted in higher costs for parents, but, says Heyda, “I don’t know if they will have to raise the fees down the road.”

This is the sticking point for everyone involved. If higher wages and better conditions mean better care for the children, and that’s the goal, then where’s the money going to come from?

Chris Rohrer, a teacher at the non-profit Glendale Child Development Center, who supports the union movement, says, “Ultimately, I want it to come from the government.” Realistically though, he believes unionizing could mean parents will pay higher fees.

His own motivations in supporting the union effort are mixed. “I’m quite sure the majority of people would rate money as the key factor,” he says, and while that’s part of what he wants, above all, “I want a lot more power, I guess. I want to have a say.” It bothers him that some child care center decisions must be made for budget reasons, without the main focus being on what’s best for children.

“Kristin,” who doesn’t want her name used, is also looking for a voice in the decision making. She’s worked for a small for-profit company for almost a year now, after spending five years at a nonprofit center. She’s mad at herself for having left, but was caught in a daycare catch-22. In a system where turnover is a major problem, no one was leaving the center where she worked (turnover rates are lower at nonprofit centers), and her prospects for advancement were stymied. The for-profit owner offered not only increased responsibility, but a raise, too. Neither has since materialized. “Kristin” is going to the conference, “And I’m taking seven people from our staff with me.”

“I need higher self-esteem and more power on my end,” Kristin stated. “I want to build up that same thing in my staff.” She thinks a union could help. As for money, she hopes that more parents can get help from their employers, to pay the higher costs she sees coming.

Candace Barrick is one of those parents. Her four-year-old son is enrolled at the Glendale Child Development Center. “The only way to get higher quality child care is to give teachers better working conditions,” Barrick states. But she admits she and her husband are already making sacrifices to pay their current child care costs. The Barricks no longer have two cars — and they’re not saving as much as she’s like for a rainy day.

Barrick believes wages and costs will have to go up before the government begins to help out. “It’s kind of a chicken and egg issue,” she said. “I don’t buy the argument that we don’t have the resources,” she stated, saying that if we can bail out the S&Ls, we can find money for childcare.

Her feeling is that all of society will eventually benefit from good child care and just needs to realize it. “One of the things that’s missing regarding improvement in child care is getting the general public informed.”

Sue Dicker agrees, calling it a pay me now, or pay me later situation. “We need to look at the long term,” she said, explaining that good child care now means better adults later. “It frightens me,” she said of situations where caretakers of infants turn over every four months. Child care workers can change things, Dicker believes, if they stand up for themselves. “Maybe this conference is the first step.”

— February 1990