Union organizing of family child care providers is a relatively new development over the past five years. Successful union campaigns in Illinois, Oregon and Washington have generated tens of millions of dollars for increased subsidies for low-income parents, lower parent co-payments and increased training subsidies for providers.
Union organizing efforts in these and other states have raised many questions by child care providers. The concept of a union is unfamiliar to many, so this FAQ is an attempt to answer some of the basic questions providers have raised about unions.
Q: What are the objections to unions?
A: Family child care providers have raised a variety of objections to union organizing efforts. Some providers dislike unions based on previous personal experiences with unions or because they object to the political positions taken by unions. Other providers support unions for the same reasons.
Here are some of the most common objections raised:
- “I don’t want to be forced to join a union because I don’t believe they are necessary.”
- “I don’t want to be forced to pay union dues because I don’t have much money and because I am concerned that the union will use my dues for a purpose I don’t approve.”
- “I don’t want a union to tell me how to run my business.”
Some providers are mistrustful of unions. Some of this mistrust may come from the fact that providers are not familiar with unions, and some may come from a fear that a union will not act in the best interests of providers. Some union organizers may not understand providers and may put undue pressure on providers to join the union. Some unions may not closely cooperate with local family child care associations. Whatever the reason for this mistrust, providers are not helpless. They can (if they desire) take action to learn more about unions by asking questions of local union representatives. Some conflicts that providers have had with unions are caused by poor communication or misunderstandings. Providers can always speak up and challenge whatever a union is doing in their area through their local family child care association.
A union cannot tell a provider how to run her business. Providers will always be free to set their own rates with parents and design their own policies. Joining a union will not make your anyone’s employee, take away control of your business, force you to strike or tell you to raise your rates.
Q: How will I be sure that the union will represent my interests?
A: A union is a democratic organization. Family child care providers who join a union will make decisions by majority vote about what issues to bargain with the state. If you want the union to pursue an issue that is important to you, bring it up and it will be considered by your peers in the union. If you are unhappy about a decision made by the majority of the members of the union you can accept the decision, try to change enough minds to change the decision, or leave the union. This is no different than participation in many other organizations you may belong to. It is democracy in action.
There is no guarantee providers will agree with every position taken by a union. For example, a union might seek to raise the licensing training requirements or include license-exempt providers in the pool of those eligible for new resources, and some providers may oppose this. Each member of the union votes on what benefits the union will seek to obtain and will vote on whether to accept an agreement made with the state or county. In the end, providers who join a union will determine everything that the union does.
Because a union seeks to organize a large number of family child care providers on a state and national level, some providers may feel that they will lose control over what large union organizations will do. Providers who currently belong to family child care associations may feel more comfortable that their voice is heard by these usually smaller organizations. There are always trade-offs between the amount of influence providers can have and the degree to which any one person can control what the union will do. The ideal is that no matter what the size of the union, its members will be regularly informed and able to voice their opinion through voting on contracts and electing of representatives who will speak for the majority. As in any organization, large or small, there is the chance that some individuals will act against the interests of the majority. It is up to the members of any organization to see to it that represents their interests.
Q: Is paying regular dues to a union going to be worth it?
A: Some providers worry that if they join a union they will be forced to pay union dues that they cannot afford or that the dues will be used for something they do not support. In the end, each provider needs to make her own judgment about whether the cost of joining a union is worth it. You can measure the worth of a union using several different standards. You could look at how much better off you are financially as a member, or look at the impact the union has made in improving the quality of child care or increasing the professionalism of the family child care field. In the end, unions will not be successful if providers do not see how they are benefiting by their membership.
Before joining, providers should look closely at the goals of the union. Do you support these goals, and does the union have a strategy to achieve these goals that seems reasonable to you? Ask questions about how the dues are spent. Each year evaluate whether the work of the union is worth your continued support.
Some providers are concerned that they will be required to pay union dues even when they do not support the union. Providers will never be required to join a union. In some situations a union may be required by law to represent the interests of all providers, even if some of the providers have not joined the union. In cases where all providers would receive the benefits of any collective bargaining negotiations between the union and the state all providers may be required to pay a “fair share fee” that goes towards the union’s costs in the collective bargaining process. This fee is not union dues.
Q: How will unions involve license-exempt providers in their organizing efforts?
A: The answer to this question varies depending on the union involved. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) does organize license-exempt providers. In their signed contract with the state of Illinois, SEIU represents only those providers who receive subsidies (both licensed and licensed-exempt). The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in New York City also includes license-exempt providers in their organizing work.
The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) does not automatically include license-exempt providers in their organizing. Their focus is on licensed providers (although in some states they are organizing license-exempt providers who are caring for subsidized families). AFSCME is working in Pennsylvania to help license-exempt providers to become licensed.
Whom should a union represent in a collective bargaining agreement? Should it be those providers who receive subsidy payments from the state (whether or not they are licensed), or should it be those providers who are regulated by the state? In both cases the provider has a relationship with the state that is the basis upon which she may bargain for increased benefits. In some states the union is proposing that there be two different bargaining units, one for those who are caring for subsidized children (whether or not they are licensed) and another just for licensed providers.
Which providers will be represented by a union can vary from state to state. This can be affected by state licensing regulations as well as by what the governor or state legislature decide.
Should subsidy rates go up by the same amount for licensed and license-exempt providers? Will licensed-exempt providers support higher licensing standards for licensed providers? Should license-exempt providers have access to potential union benefits such as health insurance? If license-exempt providers are left out of union organizing efforts how will the union be able to increase the quality of these providers? No union has an easy answer to these questions. Ultimately the members of a union will have a say in the answers. Providers who are concerned about the issue of whether or not a union should represent just regulated providers or include license-exempt providers should ask their local union organizer to explain their union’s position. If you are a license-exempt provider, you should ask the union what it can do for you that would justify paying a “fair share fee” (an administrative fee to cover the unions’ costs to collectively bargain) or union dues.
Q: How will union organizing affect low-income parents? If unions are successful, won’t this raise rates for low-income families that can ill afford to pay more?
A: Currently, family child care providers and low-income families bear the biggest burden of the under-funding of the child care system. This condition exists across the country. That is, most states do not pay providers a reasonable subsidy payment for caring for low-income children, and most low-income parents struggle to find quality care with the amount of subsidy they are given. Both providers and parents have a common interest in wanting high quality care for children. Providers work long hours and usually earn very little for their efforts as compared to other workers with similar skills. Both providers and parents have a common interest in having more public money put into the child care system.
Unions have been organizing in a number of states with a goal of increasing the state subsidy rates received by providers for caring for low-income children. In a contract signed between SEIU and the state of Illinois, the state agreed to increase the subsidy rate an average of 35% over the next three years.
Will higher subsidy rates for providers mean higher fees for low-income parents? It’s too soon to tell whether states will increase or decrease the co-payments parents must pay when subsidy rates go up. Higher subsidy rates will certainly mean that low-income parents will have more choices in their search for child care because they will have more money to spend.
States set their subsidy rates based on the market rate (usually up to a maximum of 75% of the average rates providers charge private pay parents). In most states providers cannot charge private pay parents less than the rate the state will pay for subsidized families. So, as a state raises the rates it will pay to serve low-income families, providers who are charging private pay parents the same as subsidized parents will have to raise their private pay rates to take advantage of the higher subsidy rate. Some providers may be reluctant to do this to keep their rates competitive. But many providers are already charging private pay parents more than the subsidized rate. In this situation, when the state raises its rates, providers will not have to raise their rates to private pay parents as long as the private pay rate remains higher than the state rate.
In the long run, an increase in subsidy rates may have only a modest impact on providers’ finances. The bigger problem to solve is how to make child care affordable for all parents while giving family child care providers enough money to earn a living wage. In my opinion, this will only be done when there is more public funding for middle-income as well as low-income families.
Q: How are unions different that other child care organizations (Child Care Resource and Referral agencies, family child care associations, child care advocacy groups)?
A: While unions have the same general goals as these child care organizations in that they want to improve the quality of child care and help providers become more professional, they are significant differences. Only unions can negotiate a legal contract with the state or county government on issues such as subsidy rates, health insurance, etc. Other organizations lobby the government for specific benefits through legislative action but cannot represent providers in collective bargaining.
A union can act politically in ways that all other child care organizations cannot. Unions can endorse specific political candidates (state and federal representatives and senators) and, subject to state and federal campaign finance laws, can donate money to their campaigns. Unions are often involved in direct political campaigning. Non-profit child care organizations are forbidden by law from endorsing political candidates, donating money to candidates, or being involved in direct political activities. Before a family child care union has been recognized by the state (or won an election to represent providers) and has begun collecting member dues, it can only act in a nonpartisan way like all child care organizations (distributing educational materials, holding public forums, etc.).
Once a union has formed, it cannot use membership dues collected from family child care providers for political purposes (endorsing or supporting candidates). Unions must raise money for political purposes separately from union dues. Unions at the state and local level may or may not endorse political candidates, and the process by which this happens can vary greatly from one state to another. Providers who join unions have the opportunity to join with other union members to become politically active in a way that they currently cannot with existing child care organizations.
Some providers may not be comfortable with the fact that unions are involved in political activities. For some providers, unions may have endorsed candidates and positions that they do not support. Other providers are more comfortable with union positions on various issues and candidates. Unions across the country in many different industries have supported both Democratic and Republican candidates and positions. Many union political activities focus more on the issues affecting union members (such as minimum wage, Social Security, family issues, etc.) rather than on endorsing particular political candidates. Ultimately, decisions about the specific political activity taken by a union will be decided upon by the local union membership.
Q: Will unions create competition for other child care organizations?
A: Maybe. Although the expressed intent of unions at the national level is not to duplicate services now provided by other child care organizations (CCR&R agencies, family child care associations, and other advocacy groups), union actions could create some unwanted competition.
Unions and child care organizations have worked cooperatively in many states to fight state budget cuts and lobby to influence state legislation that will benefit providers. On many issues there is a common ground among these organizations. In some states unions and child care organizations have made agreements about how they will collaborate.
Some child care organizations have expressed concern that unions might compete with them by offering trainings, conferences, and other services. It’s too soon to tell whether or not this will create significant problems, but it’s important for unions and child care organizations to continue to reach out to each other to share what they are doing and to cooperate whenever possible. Although there may be agreements made at a national or state level between unions and child care organizations, it is important for providers and child care organizations to follow closely what happens at their local level and to speak out if there are problems.
No one organization (whether a union or a child care organization) can say they speak for all providers, and no organization should have a monopoly on providing benefits to providers. Individual providers also have a responsibility to support organizations that represent their interests and to speak out when any organization does not act in their best interests.
Prepared by Tom Copeland (revised February 2011)
This FAQ previously appeared on the website of Resources for Child Caring (http://www.resourcesforchildcaring.com/index.cfm?page=Unions).