Head Start workers in Jackson, Josephine counties to vote on union
MEDFORD - Following a union organizing campaign more focused on worker rights than economic gains, some 210 Head Start workers in southwest Oregon's Jackson and Josephine counties will vote in March on whether to join Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
Mail-in ballots go out March 3 and will be counted March 20.
The potential bargaining unit is over 95 percent women, with entry level wages starting at $7.20 an hour. Workers do get step increases, but organizers estimate that over half the workers still are paid less than a living wage. Many cannot take advantage of their insurance benefits because they cannot afford the co-pays.
Still, wages weren't really what fueled the union drive.
"Nobody thinks they're going to get rich working for Head Start," said AFSCME organizer Debra Kidney. "They want a voice on the job and participation. They want respect and to be treated with dignity."
They want to do away with favoritism, she adds; they want clear rules on promotions, job assignments, and transfers; and they want more concise job descriptions.
Currently, Kidney said, job classifications are described so vaguely that workers end up working free overtime to finish what they're expected to do. Paid overtime is not allowed, and Kidney said workers commonly put in 50 hours and get paid for 40. And they're expected to do almost everything. In addition to assisting in classrooms, center assistants mow lawns, paint walls, drive buses, and clean toilets.
"These are women who care greatly about the children," adds Lead Organizer Bob Marshall. "They want input on how things are run."
Right now, some workers say, things are being run in a way that shows skewed priorities. Administrative offices are housed in a nice new building, while children are served in poor-quality facilities and teachers use desks that consist of a door lying on two file cabinets. At headquarters, a maintenance person is called for tasks as trivial as hanging a bulletin board, while elsewhere, staff had to organize a work party after they couldn't get a maintenance person to remove cat feces from sand boxes.
"A lot of these places have been open for 20 years," added organizer Eileen O'Connell. "They need new tricycles. They have broken toilets."
The union, workers think, could be a way to fight for improvements in the program itself. Head Start workers feel strongly about the program - 30 percent are parents of current or former Head Start children, and with the wages they make, a lot of the staff are at the same economic level as the clients they serve.
"Their clients are on food stamps," O'Connell says," and some of them are too."
The number of Head Start locations has more than doubled in Josephine and Jackson counties in the last two to three years; today some 900 children a year are enrolled.
Though it's a federal program, Head Start is not administered centrally. Instead, some 1,456 non-profit organizations, local government agencies, school systems, and community action agencies apply for and receive federal grants to do Head Start programs. The federal government requires the agencies to get at least 20 percent of their funding from other sources.
Head Start rules prohibit the local agencies from using federal funds for anti-union activities, but organizers say management gets around this prohibition by claiming such activities are using funds from the other sources.
Management has retained a labor-relations lawyer, and supervisors are meeting regularly about it, but so far there haven't been any anti-union meetings or pressure on workers, Marshall said.
The union campaign started in October 1999 when a group of employees contacted AFSCME. Nationally, AFSCME represents about 6,500 Head Start members in at least 15 states, and it has made organizing Head Start agencies a priority. [In Oregon, Head Start employees in Lane and Clackamas counties are represented by the Oregon School Employees Association, which is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.]
AFSCME Council 75 assigned three full-time staff organizers to the campaign: Marshall, Kidney and O'Connell. Union staff helped the initial group of employees form an organizing committee. Then they began doing targeted house calls to build the organizing committee - they now count about 35 employees as union activists.
To reach the workers at about two dozen Head Start locations spread out over some 4,000 square miles has meant driving many thousands of miles. Kidney said they've done hundreds of house calls. Everyone has been housecalled at least once.
To rally and maintain support for the union, activists have been wearing union buttons and holding pizza meetings to answer questions. More than half the employees have signed an "I'm voting for the union" petition.
Despite the support, the Head Start administration has refused to recognize a majority of signed union authorization cards, forcing AFSCME to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.
Marshall said AFSCME is looking to organize other Head Start locations and is calling for people with contacts with Head Start employees to contact him at 503-239-9858.
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