The Right to Child Care

Researchers and unions in the U.S. and Canada discuss benefits and strategy
Cornell University: Worker Institute: News: Right to Child Care
Monday, February 11, 2013
Researchers and trade union representatives from the U.S. and Canada discussed child care policy at a Worker Institute-organized panel discussion.

The meeting was held in the Worker Institute at Cornell and was sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation's New York City office. Approximately 60 child care advocates and trade union leaders participated in the meeting.

Researchers described the multiple benefits of child care which extend beyond child development to economic development and worker productivity. Mildred Warner, professor of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, stated that investment in child care has a greater economic benefit than investment in infrastructure, retail and tourism. "For every $1 invested in early child care stimulates $2 of economic activity and for every job created another half job is created," said Warner.

"Child care has moved from the margins of the policy agenda to become a more central issue of the policy agenda by unions," said panelist Susanna Schaller, a professor at the City College of New York- CUNY referring to case study research of NYC unions. Reliable access to child care has been shown to reduce conflict and enhance worker productivity benefitting both the worker and the employer, Schaller said.

Panelists from Canada outlined policies in Canada and trends in the sector. Martha Friendly, the founder and executive director of Childcare Resource and Research Unit, described recent trends towards privatization in the industry and the emergence of concern about unregulated child care. There is general opposition to child care being run on profit, said Friendly. Vicky Smallman, national director for Women's & Human Rights at the Canadian Labour Congress, argued that while the economic development argument in favor of better child care was important, unions in Canada were committed to the mobilization of their members and the broader public around a 'child care is a social right' framework.

Simon Black, a researcher at York University, outlined two recent struggles to defend high quality, public child care in the greater Toronto area-- one in the city and one the Toronto suburbs. In both campaigns, union-community coalitions were formed to defend the municipal centers, but only one of the campaigns succeeded. According to Black, the Toronto campaign was successful because it had stronger political allies and a longstanding coalition. In addition, the campaign was able to connect cuts in child care to other austerity measures, Black said. The union-community campaign efforts saved 57 centers from being privatized.

Municipally run child care centers are leaders in innovation and care, Black said. "Studies have shown that unionization and being operated by a municipality are proven to have a positive influence on child care worker's wages, benefits, working conditions and program quality."

Union leaders responding to the panelist's presentations focused their comments on their union's political strategies to improve access to quality child care and to raise workplace standards.

Because child care is a collective responsibility, it is easy to understand why unions advocate for it, said Jamie Kass from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, a union that bargained for a child care fund. Several New York-based unions including 1199SEIU, Transport Workers Union Local 100, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1056 have bargained for child care benefits for their members. 1199SEIU has the largest fund with 21 million annually contributed by the employer. Kass argued that there was a danger that these bargained benefits could be lost in contract negotiation, and this is why unions should push for a universal publicly-funded child care program.

For the New York City union leaders and child care advocates in the room, the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio offers a new opportunity to move policy forward. "The new administration has made a commitment to universal pre-k," said Nancy Kolben, executive director of the Center for Children's Initiatives. This provides a new opportunity to talk about child care as a civil and social right and provide access for all children, Kolben said.

"De Blasio has always been a proponent of [public] center-based child care" said GL Tyler, political director of District Council 1707. Referring to the cuts over the past two decades, he said "We want the de Blasio Administration to recognize the struggle we've had." Tyler outlined a number of ways the new administration could support existing public child care centers and expand access by restoring centers, reviewing policies, providing secure funding and making capital improvements.

I. Daneek Miller, newly elected city council member and former president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1056 attended the event. At the union, Miller was instrumental in negotiating child care benefits for his members. "The ATU was the first municipal union in the country to negotiate child care and I am so proud of that." The city council is supportive, Miller added. "The possibilities are there and we can do it."

De Blasio has supported these policies in the past and could be an advocate, said Debby King, chair of the New York Union Child Care Coalition. "We need to have a discussion with our members and also make this a priority for the labor movement."

This event was organized as part of the Worker Institute's Equity at Work Initiative.