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Child-Care Workers Begin To Nurture Fledgling Union

Group of caregivers in Philadelphia leads movement to improve pay in child-care field.

Because of her love for children, Carol Mack left a lucrative job in electronics 10 years ago to become a preschool teacher.

Now, this Philadelphia grandmother is considering leaving that profession solely for financial reasons.

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"Where I worked before, I made $26,000 a year and had benefits," says Ms. Mack. "Now, I earn $7.20 an hour. I pay for all my insurance, and I have no retirement plan."

Right now, the only thing standing between Mack and resignation is The United Child Care Union - a new move to organize the region's 24,000 child-care workers. It's one of a few similar efforts across the country. If successful, it may lead to better wages and benefits for workers, but opponents say it will create higher costs for centers and parents.

The Philadelphia union, under the auspices of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, itself an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union (AFSCME), was chartered in May at a convention attended by 250 people. "When I left that day, I felt like I was on top of the clouds," says Mack.

For AFSCME president Gerald McEntee, the Philadelphia effort is coming at a good time, as "society and politicians are more accepting of the fact that there needs to be increased money put into child care," he says.

Since Philadelphia's charter session, organizing efforts have been on a grass-roots level - meetings and face-to-face talks with child-care workers. "We go to visit people at their centers, at homes, wherever is necessary," explains Vickie Milhouse, the union organizer. "It's about educating people. When they hear the word 'union,' one of the things that comes to mind is 'strikes,' but this is different. No one's going to walk out on children."

As insurance, the United Childcare Union has taken a unique approach, bringing both child-care workers and their employers under the same union umbrella. The United Childcare Professionals represents child-care providers, and the United Child Care Providers Association will represent employers. This concept, which seems to run counter to the very idea of unionization, is logical to area child-care advocates. "We're basically working toward the same goals: getting the best care for children and the best conditions for workers and owners alike," says Denise Dowell of Childspace Cooperative Development, a group that encourages employee-owned centers. According to this plan, both associations would sit down and draft a contract, which would set wages and benefits in the Philadelphia area, she says.

A similar approach has been taken in Seattle, which launched a child-care union effort in the spring. In that city, 200 people have signed up for union membership, and six child-care centers have agreed to recognize the union, says Kim Cook, union campaign director.

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"Child-care teachers are underpaid and undervalued. Teachers are finally turning to union organization as a way to address these things," says Ms. Cook.

No one disputes that the pay scale in the child-care industry is low. According to a recent national study by the Washington-based Center for the Child Care Workforce, most child-care workers - whether at home or in larger centers - make less than $8.50 an hour, with assistants making between $5.50 and $6.25. Two-thirds receive no benefits.

Yet not everyone agrees that unionization is the best way to rectify the low-pay situation. In fact, Fred Citron, executive director of The Early Learning Centers, a group of 17 suburban Philadelphia not-for-profit centers, says he worries that unionization will create an extra layer of management that will make operating an already fragile business more complicated. "I don't feel bringing in a union will provide any positive impetus and can only see the negative consequences," which could include some programs having to close, he says. That objection was echoed in a statement by Whitney Gilman, a spokeswoman for Children's World Learning Centers, which operates 550 community-based centers in 23 states. "Children's World prefers to deal with our employees directly, rather than through a third party. By maintaining a direct relationship with our employees, we are better able to promote communication that allows employees to raise questions, express opinions and concerns as individuals."

Union organizers say there is little chance of centers closing under their plan. "Some directors fear we are going to drive up the cost," Ms. Milhouse says, "but that's not what we're going to do. We want to mobilize so we can go after the state and federal monies the schools need... that's why we need to join forces."

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