Child-Care Worker Unionization Battle Heats Up in Rhode Island

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


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Earlier this year, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved legislation, which was signed into law by Governor Chafee, allowing child-care workers who receive state assistance the ability to unionize.

The Quality Family Child Care Act allows child care providers in the state participating in the Child Care Assistance Program the ability to form a union and negotiate with the state in areas such as training, development, and recruitment.

"This measure will strengthen Rhode Island's child care program by giving parents and family child care providers a voice to raise up the quality of early learning and increase access to child care," said Linda Katz with the Economic Progress Institute at the time of passage.

The process to allow for unionization is currently underway with the state's labor board. Recently, providers who participate in the child care assistance program signed cards of interest, which were filed with the Labor Board on August 6th. The Labor Board will now organize a secret-ballot election among these providers -- and the SEIU has provided information about union representation on its website here.

However, voices at both the local and national levels are calling into question the need of the child care workers in the state to unionize, pointing to examples in other states where unionization efforts weren't ultimately successful -- and where they were, came at a high cost.

Voices of Dissent Point to Track Record -- and Dues Receipts

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Data on the Coalition of Union Free Providers website shows the status of child-care worker unionization efforts across the country to date.

"Of the 16 states that have unionized child care providers, only 6 still have an active contract," said Jennifer Parrish with the Coalition of Union Free Providers. "And in the case of Illinois, the unions have taken in $10 million dollars a year in dues since child care workers were unionized."

The Minnesota-based Coalition was formed in 2005, calling itself the state's "original source of information on childcare unionization, specializing in research, facts, advocacy, and education," with a website,, whose state mission is to "provide information and educate the public, legislators, and child care providers."

"I'm a Minnesota child care provider, and while.we've been fighting the unionization for 8 years now here, we've also worked with providers in other states," said Parrish. "Our big concern is knowing how organizers operate. In some instances, child care workers are being told they're getting health insurance, promises being made aren't going to happen. Once the unions are in, it's hard to get them out."

"We are not employed by state, we're small businesses. They're trying to paint us as not being able to run successful operations," said Parrish. "They're saying we'll get benefits, a higher reimbursement rate, and a seat at the table with regulations are looked at -- which we can all do ourselves right now."

Parrish continued, "The unions can sit down with their states, say we want a 30 cent increase per hour for reimbursement rate, but it still needs legislative approval. If just creates another level of bureaucracy."

National Group Points to Data Collected

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"In Illinois, the first state to unionize, they've taken over $60M in dues...they're taking in close to $10M per year," said Parrish. "At the time of the vote in Illinois, there were 49,000 eligible child care workers to vote. Right now, it's around 35K. I think it's safe to say the number of providers has dropped considerably."

"One of the reasons they gave them, leaders that is, is that it's for labor stabilization, which is not the case."

Parrish continued, "What we've learned is that the benefits have been minimal, if any. Oregon, New York, Washington have gotten limited benefits. It's so limited -- for example, in Illinois, where there are 30,000 providers, only 5,000 have health insurance.

"And it's also a fact that in states where unions are formed, they've gotten progressively less funding. Our funding in Minnesota has gone up. The unionized states are serving few children, we're serving more." said Parrish.

"In other unionizing circumstances, in a building shop for example, the workers can band together for a decertification if the union isn't meeting their promises, or their goals. Child care providers would have a difficult time trying to band together. So as a result the unions can continue to collect dues and fees without concern for opposition," said Parrish.

Parrish said that all of the data collected was documented, with almost all of the information obtained by FOIAs. "We're just trying to get information out there so providers can make an informed decision."

Mike Stenhouse with the Center for Freedom and Prosperity in Rhode Island said that his group had outreach plans for the near future pertaining to the unionization effort.

"We're considering a research piece and some PR so that folks can know what this means," said Stenhouse. "One of the concerns is that the providers are not getting all of the information, they're probably hearing just the pro-side. We'll be looking to get the word out about what this means."

"The unions can promise all they want, but how is the General Assembly going to be approving much more spending right now?"

State Advocates Staunch in Support

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Senator Maryellen Goodwin, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said upon passage, "As other states, including MA and CT, have experienced, empowering family child care providers allows the state to get valuable feedback from them and to maximize the state's return on its child care investment."

As the wheels are in motion to unionize, Dawn Newman, a family child care provider from Cumberland, had the following viewpoint to share in support of the effort.

“Over 500 family child care providers like myself are united together in SEIU District 1199NE, and we’re looking forward to getting the chance to vote to officially form our union," said Newman. "Our goal is to work together to improve early learning in Rhode Island, to stabilize and raise up our profession, ensure the best start in life for Rhode Island’s youngest children.” 


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