On May 1st at the Statehouse, Vermont early childhood educator Kay Curtis led 800 people chanting “union power is on the rise, now’s the time to organize.” Five days later, she and her fellow 1,400 low-wage early childhood educators – primarily women – midwived historic legislation, expanding Vermont labor law and allowing these previously excluded workers to form their union. Just as with 7,500 low-wage Vermont homecare providers who announced their first contract at the same May 1st Vermont Workers’ Center rally, the early educators’ victory demonstrates labor’s changed fortunes when workers and unions partner with Workers’ Centers to build a 21st century labor movement.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), celebrated with the Vermont child-care providers, saying, “This is a great step in a long-term effort by early childhood educators to secure a voice to strengthen their profession and advocate on behalf of the children and families they serve. Now, early child-care providers in Vermont will have the opportunity to organize and win a stronger voice. We thank the legislature for standing with early childhood educators and look forward to the governor signing this into law.”
Building Power to End the Feminization of Poverty
Anna Gebhardt had a 15-year career in early education, owning her own daycare business and working as a preschool teacher and director at many different centers. In an interview with Truthout, Gebhardt described the caregiving profession as, “low-wage mostly women, working themselves to the bone, making just barely enough to get by and yet they never complain.” Gebhardt spoke about how organizing to build her union empowered her, as she heard similar stories of struggle inside a system that devalues early educators’ work. Over the course of those 15 years, Gebhardt was able to work her way up to $10 an hour only; the love of the care-giving work kept her from realizing how impoverished she was. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that early childhood educators are primarily women and our labor is so undervalued. I think there is a direct correlation to that.
“It’s one of these things where I didn’t realize I would eat whatever scraps the kids didn’t eat off their plates before I washed them and consider that fine,” Gebhardt added. “Even my son now goes back and tells stories, ‘Oh mom, I remember how you used to feed my sister and I dinner and not eat with us. I always wondered what you ate.’ “
“Childcare is physically, emotionally and mentally draining,” said Heather Hassett, a lifelong early educator and current AFT Member-Organizer, in an interview with Truthout. “Many providers work in excess of 12 hours a day, no lunch break, no downtime whatsoever. Many of them often make less than minimum wage.” Early Childhood educators, according to Hassert, act as “surrogate families,” responsible for the health, safety, well-being and education of the youngest Vermont residents. The state of Vermont “depends on the provider for compliance with regulation relevant to child care, availability to families, attendance at professional development, adherence to all local and state requirements for running a business, navigating the abundant bureaucracy inherent to the profession, and the list goes on,” said Hassert. “And yet prioritizing paying these individuals a livable wage, let alone what they are ‘worth’ is continually neglected.”
A 4-year Fight for the Human Right to Collectively Bargain
Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, in an interview with Truthout described a four-year, two-stage process for early childhood educators to change labor law. “The first stage is getting people to value early childhood education itself.” Baruth pointed to correlations between quality public education, increased brain development and decreased strain on social services for the next generation of Vermont residents. Early educators and allies coming together and speaking out changed the hearts and minds of Baruth’s colleagues regarding these low-wage providers’ exclusion from labor law and lack of collective bargaining power. Senator Baruth said his colleagues began seeing this exclusion as “the systemic inattention to the needs of working women,” and he personally hopes the passage of bill S.316 pushes back a little against it. The larger challenge, according to the Chittenden County senator, is “the second stage, getting people to value the workers who do it.” Baruth described “a continuing problem of getting recognition of, and fair pay for, the workers, and that’s honestly what took the longest – as it always does.”
During the organizing effort, legislators who were opposed to granting the enabling legislation, after decades of ignoring early childhood educators’ poverty wages, suddenly made an offer to raise child-care subsidies in exchange for not seeking a union. Senator Anthony Pollina described these demobilizing efforts as “a sign that your organization is working. But this is also a way of asking you to go home and be quiet. Do not allow them to pay you off, which is what they are trying to do.”
James Haslam, director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, in an interview with Truthout detailed how in 2010, the VWC started a series of candidates’ forums, People’s Forums on Healthcare Kids and the Economy, where these low-wage providers shared their stories of trying to meet their families’ fundamental needs on less than $18,000 per year. “There is a huge amount of workers in the state – people, primarily women, providing a critical service to the community who are working poverty wages without a voice on decisions that impact their lives,” Haslam said.
“One of the most powerful moments was the election season of 2010: We ran a really strong series of legislative forums,” said Gebhardt. “I was working as the assistant preschool teacher in Munchkin Land Montessori in Swanton. It was an incredible opportunity for me as an early educator to think I could ask legislators questions specific to early education and get the information out to my community, where the legislators running for office stand on issues that I really cared about.”
Gebhardt described the Vermont Workers’ Center’s organizing as instrumental in building an intersectional social vision of how providers’ work conditions directly impact community members’ ability to live lives with dignity. This social justice unionism model, similar to that of the Chicago Teachers’ Union and a recent successful Vermont transit strike, built power not only around the poverty wages of early educators, but also powerful community solidarity with parents struggling for affordable childcare. “To me, the Workers’ Center is sort of the glue that brings all these workers together; there isn’t a place where issues end and real life begins, or where my issue ends and your issue begins because they are all connected. Health and dignity are at the heart of what everyone in our communities is fighting for – unions, environmentalists, fighting for our healthcare system, all of us.”
This larger social vision, helping marginalized communities meet their fundamental needs, gave added relevance to the organizing beyond the effort to win a union for early childhood educators. One of the many families living in the other Vermont, which rarely gets acknowledged in public policy or travel brochures, found their voice through Early Childhood Educators’ organizing. “I showed up at their door, and talking to them, they really had some deep-seated issues in their town, where they were really being discriminated against because of the poverty they lived in.”
Gebhardt described how the town wouldn’t connect the trailer park where the family lives to the town’s water supply. After professional development opportunities the union put on for free, providers going to the Statehouse and explaining their issues to legislators, and most importantly, organizers developing the female care providers of this family as rank-and-file leaders, suddenly they were empowered to start organizing everyone from their trailer park to their state senators until justice rolled down in the form of much-needed water. “That, to me, was a real sign of empowerment,” said Gebhardt.
Once Excluded Workers Build Power, Lifting Standards for an Entire Profession
According to Haslam, the Early Childhood Educators organizing created an environment where similar low-wage female workers could win their 2013 election. Haslam described it as a tremendous step forward in raising the standards – particularly for women workers in addressing inequities – and a huge step forward in raising the standards in early education. “Since 2010, there’s been an ongoing strong conversation happening about the right to organize, the right for people to form unions, and we’ve seen two of the biggest victories in Vermont’s labor history, bringing thousands of workers who were previously excluded from the labor movement to become its newest members, providing critical services for our community,” said Haslam.
Further, that larger community vision of Early Childhood Educators’ organizing is starting to change the conversation around work conditions and also leverage politicians to provide much-needed funding to raise the standards of Early Childhood Education statewide. “Psychologists tell us that, in terms of human development, the most important years are birth through four years of age,” said Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a member of the Senate education committee. “Yet, in terms of early childhood education, our nation does a very inadequate job in making quality prekindergarten education available to working families.” Sanders, so moved by the early childhood educators organizing, has sat on a Workers’ Center panel with Anna Gebhardt and coworkers, and he’s spoken out in Vermont’s Statehouse for their right to collectively bargain. As a result of this changed conversation, Vermont’s policymakers passed legislation to implement a statewide pre-kindergarten system by July 2015.
The Road Forward to Election, a Contract and Long Overdue Justice
“Once Governor Shumlin signs S.316,” said Ben Johnson, president of AFT-Vermont, “home-based early educators in Vermont can choose to go through the process to prove their majority, like personal-care attendants in Vermont did last year with AFSCME last fall. Providers can then develop proposals, elect a negotiation team and sit down with the administration as equals and negotiate a contract that improves the lives of early educators and the families they serve.”
Vermont’s early childhood educators are well aware the political victory of winning enabling legislation and expanding labor law is just the first step on the road forward to long-overdue justice. “Now that this legislation is passed,” said Gebhardt, “we have the ability to really start organizing a real union that can fight for changes in the working conditions.”