Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris points off camera as she greets members of organized labor at a conference in downtown Sacramento, April 1, 2019.
Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris greets members of organized labor at a conference in downtown Sacramento, April 1, 2019. CALmatters photo.

In summary

It was a brief, unscripted moment for the presidential candidate in what was to be a fairly conventional campaign stop. But it was a notable one.

Democratic presidential contender Kamala Harris was just about to take the stage tonight at Sacramento’s Sheraton Grand Hotel ballroom when she spotted and ran over to a group of women sporting yellow t-shirts sitting on right side of the auditorium. They were California child-care workers hoping to win collective bargaining rights in Sacramento. And Harris, a U.S. senator from California, put her stump speech on hold to exchange hugs and snap selfies.

It was a brief, unscripted moment in what was to be a fairly conventional campaign stop, but it was a notable one.

In her 20 minute speech to the conference put on by the California Labor Federation and the State Building and Construction Trades Council, Harris spoke broadly about the value of organized labor— “unions built the middle class of this country”—and stuck mostly to national politics. She promised to repeal the changes to the federal tax code signed into law by President Trump last year, and spoke about the aspirational nature of the American character.

Her one tangent into California state policy belonged to the women in yellow.

“I was going over there to talk to my sisters in the child-care workforce, and I thank you for all that you are doing to organize a critical workforce—to organize and unionize,” she said, speaking to the cheering members of the Service Employees International Union and the United Domestic Workers of America.

“The greatest expression of a society’s love of its children,” she continued, “is to put resources and support into anybody who is caring for those children.” 

For more than a decade, child-care workers in California who receive state subsidies to serve low-income families have been lobbying in the state Capitol to get the right to bargain with the state over reimbursement rates, licensing requirements and other policies that affect their industry. Supporters say that direct negotiations with state agencies are the best way to improve working conditions and child-care quality, though some skeptics worry that higher reimbursement rates could eat away at state funding that could be used to serve more children. Others see the campaign as yet another way for organized labor to consolidate political power.

This year, Santa Barbara Democrat Assemblywoman Monique Limón said that she is more optimistic than ever that her bill to OK the unionization effort will be successful this time. 

“This is a new era,” Limón told CALmatters last month. “We have a new governor who cares a lot about child care.”

And now they appear to have the backing of one of the Democratic front runners to be the next president of the United States. At least that’s certainly how many of the assembled childcare workers interpreted it. Harris did not take questions before or after her speech.

“It felt good,” said Nancy Harvey, who runs Lil’ Nancy’s Primary Schoolhouse out of her house in West Oakland. “She’s on our side.”

“I loved what she was saying,” added Celeste Galeno, who owns Little Lambs Daycare in Tulare. “She knows that child care affects every single one of us in this place because every single one of us has been a child.” 

Harris wasn’t the only state politician to show up at the union confab to rub elbows and to seek possible endorsements. State Attorney General Xavier Becerra also made an appearance, as did at least three dozen state legislators. Also today, Harris’s campaign announced that the Oakland native and former state attorney general had raised $12 million in the first quarter of her presidential campaign, and her public appearances in the state have been sandwiched between private fundraisers. 

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Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and...