SEIU recognized as advocate for 6,000 Oregon child care workers

SALEM — Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503 will have a role representing 6,000 unlicensed in-home child care providers in Oregon, thanks to an executive order signed by Governor Ted Kulongoski signed Feb. 13.

The child care providers are typically family, friends, or neighbors of low-income parents, paid by the State of Oregon to care for the children while the parents are at work. Payment ranges from $1.60 to $2.20 an hour per child, and providers can care for up to three children not related to them without going through licensing and certification.

The same program also pays 1,600 “licensed and certified” in-home child care providers. Under a similar executive order signed September 2005, Oregon Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees represents that group, along with about 3,000 licensed in-home providers who don’t take the subsidy.

The two unions have competed to represent in-home child care providers in Oregon and other states. Kulongoski split the group, with AFSCME getting the more-established providers and SEIU getting the lower-income, higher-turnover group.

The two unions’ campaigns to represent child care providers are quite unconventional in several ways. The governor’s executive orders specify that the providers aren’t employees of the state. The unions won’t “represent” them in the classic sense of collective bargaining that produces a labor agreement; instead, the orders direct the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) to “meet and confer” with the unions over issues like training, reimbursement rates, and health and safety conditions. Any agreement they reach will be spelled out in a non-binding memorandum.

Abby Solomon, lead organizer on the SEIU campaign, said that “meet and confer” language is similar to legal language in states that don’t have a public employee collective bargaining law. Solomon said in-home child care workers are similar in many ways to the in-home health care workers SEIU unionized several years ago: Small-scale low-wage helpers, often related to the clients they serve. If anything, their status is somewhere between employee and program beneficiary, as many would be doing the work anyway.

Child care worker Mary Bronson, 68, gets $1,600 a month from the program to look after her five great-grandchildren. Bronson was doing the work anyway before her granddaughter found out about the program, but the income from the program enabled her to move to a safer neighborhood.

When an SEIU representative knocked on her door, Bronson was ready to join. She thinks by teaming up with other child care providers in the same program, they can try to get better wages, and maybe even health benefits, so that she could afford dental care. It’s a basic principle of unionism — unifying for a common goal.

SEIU won such benefits for the home health care workers it unionized in 2001, and Solomon said SEIU hopes to pull off a similar win for family child care providers.

The group is very low wage, and without immediate hopes of a union contract, it’s not clear when they’ll get to the point of paying dues and achieving full union membership. But for SEIU, representing the interests of child care providers is a way to organize very-low-wage workers into an economic and political bloc that will support adequate funding for public services. 

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