Why childcare workers will benefit from unions

By Tonia McMillian, Special to CalMatters

For 25 years, I’ve woken up long before the sun and opened the doors to my family child care business by 5 a.m every day. 

Before the last parent arrives for pickup around 11 p.m., I’ll have welcomed 14 young children into my home, sung dozens of songs, prepared scores of meals, and taught a curriculum that readies my little learners for the science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics education they’ll receive in K-12 schools. 

At the end of this year, I’ll close those doors for the last time as I retire. After decades of back-breaking, heart-warming and emotionally exhausting work, I’m ready for a new chapter. And I’m proud that I’ve been a part of transforming the child care system so the next generation of child care providers will start in a much stronger position than I did.  

Child care workers are largely women of color. We have suffered for too long without a recognized voice in our industry. That’s why my provider sisters and I have spent the past two decades fighting to gain respect for the work we do, and for access to a union, so we can give every child the chance to succeed. 

Our victory finally came on Sept. 30 when Gov. Gavin Newsom put his signature on Assembly Bill 378, the Building a Better Early Care and Education System Act. The bill by Assemblywoman Monique Limón, Santa Barbara Democrat, mandates thatCalifornia give us a seat at the table so we can continue to strengthen the child care system our children and their parents count on.

Without a union, pay rates for providers who accept state subsidies have languished. After we cover overhead costs, pay our assistants, and buy educational supplies and healthy food, we earn as little as $4.98 an hour. 

But our fight for recognition is about much more than pay. It’s about opportunities for training and education so the young people in our care can start school ready to learn. It’s about equipping providers with best-practices, and coordinating with school districts and teachers to make sure our methods mesh perfectly with their curriculum. 

I joined the fight to gain union recognition to bring more support to working parents and empower more than 40,000 family child care providers in California.  

My union has spent the last 16 years organizing, meeting with elected officials, and reaching out to our colleagues one by one to form our union. 

I’m excited, down to my gut, that our hard-fought victory means the next provider serving my community will not have to face the same kind of hardships. That the contributions she makes to children and families will be recognized. That she won’t be demeaned as just “a babysitter.” She will be respected as an educator.  

Our mobilization of child care workers, one of the largest movements of workers fighting for a union in the United States, comes at a pivotal time for the labor movement in America, when growing inequality makes it harder for workers of all kinds to survive, much less thrive.  

I’m especially proud of our workforce of women and people of color are at the forefront of this fight. It’s fitting that a workforce dedicated to the next generation is transforming the future, and that’s exactly what will happen when child care providers gain the strength that comes from standing together in our unions. 

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Tonia McMillian is a member of Child Care Providers United, a joint project of SEIU 99, SEIU 521, and UDW-AFSCME, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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