Why Do the People Raising Our Children Earn Poverty Wages?
Passaic, New Jersey, is an old, workaday city that was once an active mill town populated by European immigrants. Today, the area is lower-income and increasingly Latino. Of its 70,000 or so residents, around fifty provide childcare in their homes.
Roberto Cabañas has knocked on the door of every provider in Passaic. On Burgess Place, I follow him into the apartment of an elderly African-American woman with glasses. She has us stand awkwardly in the dim kitchen, where Cabañas, a soft-spoken 30-year-old organizer with a linebacker’s build, squints to read from his clipboard.
He explains that he is with New Jersey Communities United, a nonprofit group doing outreach for the Child Care Workers Union. The woman is skeptical: “I didn’t get no material from them, so I figured there was no union.” Cabañas apologizes and talks up a future meeting. The woman shows no interest, then shows us out. In the car, Cabañas calls her a “flat-liner.” “Those take a lot out of us,” he says.
Organizing a home-based workforce is like gathering dandelion seeds on a windy day. Family childcare providers are dispersed and isolated, with shifting, unpredictable hours. They are low-income, which means they’re busy and prone to moving or switching jobs, and a significant number do not speak English. Legally, they are not considered employees.
Despite these obstacles, in New Jersey and fourteen other states, in-home providers paid through public subsidies now belong to a union and can bargain collectively. The blueprint strategy—to organize workers home by home and secure their bargaining rights through an executive order or legislation declaring them “employees”—was inherited from the Service Employee International Union’s home health-aide campaigns. (Minnesota childcare workers’ recent victory is being contested in court.)
The first union contract, signed in 2007, established a historic increase of more than 20 percent in pay rates and a grievance procedure for New Jersey’s providers. Susan Fago, a longtime Camden-based provider who now works part time for the union, says, “We had payment issues, getting contracts, getting referrals—it was like crawling into a black hole. I felt right from the start that the union is just what this business needed.”
But the contract lapsed in 2010, and providers heard little from the union—run in half the state’s counties by Local 2779 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and in the other half by Local 1037 of the Communication Workers of America (CWA). Ken McNamara, president of Local 1037, acknowledges that the momentum waned after the first contract. And it didn’t help that the union’s community partner, ACORN, which had done the day-to-day organizing with providers, was famously brought down nationwide in 2009.
“When the contract expired and no one cared, Programs for Parents went crazy,” says Jimenez, now a union leader or, as she calls it, a “shop stewardess.” She was distressed by the union’s neglect and by “e-child care,” a phone-based check-in/check-out and direct-deposit system abruptly established in 2012, via a $2.5 million contract with Xerox. According to New Jersey officials, the union had received advance notice of the automation.
Last year, in the wake of e-child care, Local 1037 began reorganizing providers in their counties with the goal of negotiating a second, better contract (it’s still being bargained). To do so, it enlisted Cabañas’s nonprofit group, New Jersey Communities United, an ACORN successor launched in part by the CWA.
In Passaic and neighboring Paterson, Danisia Valadez, a bilingual provider with twenty-five years’ experience, is a well-known fighter for Latina workers and parents. On my first visit to her Sherman Street home, she embraced me like an old friend and sat next to me on a Sponge Bob–blanketed couch.
“A lot of friends, providers, they call me: ‘Oh, Danisia, what happened?’” she says. “I call [the agency] or [go] with her to see what happened. I like it, helping people.”
Before the union, Valadez fought constantly with 4Cs, the CCR&R in Passaic County. Payments were delayed for three or four months at a time, and the staff routinely lost paperwork and berated parents seeking help. Things have since improved, she says, though she continues to be vigilant as a shop steward.