Portland child care workers launch union

Worker bees are about cooperation. Bubble blowers, face painting and art stations drew parents and kids as well as child care workers to the playground at Laurelhurst Park for a June 4 union rally. Workers say they love the job but want more say on staffing and safety issues. | PHOTO BY DON McINTOSH

By COLIN STAUB

Workers at Joyful Noise Child Development Centers have launched a union drive. The nonprofit employs about 80 workers at four day care centers in Portland—two downtown and two on the east side. Each site contracts with employers, mostly government agencies, that want to offer subsidized child care to employees.

Management declined to voluntarily recognize their union, so workers asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) May 16 to schedule a union election to prove that workers want to be represented by Joyful Childcare Workers Union, which would be part of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 5. Local 5 mainly represents workers at Powell’s Books, but child care workers at three other day care centers have joined Local 5 since 2020—Growing Seeds, Wild Lilac and the Rock Creek branch of Fruit & Flower. None have collective bargaining agreements yet.

Ballots were mailed June 15 and will be counted July 6.

Caterina Schwarzkopf, a substitute teacher, said at two Joyful Noise locations there hasn’t been much push back against the union, but at the other two there has been tension. Employees who don’t want to unionize shared articles criticizing ILWU. Schwarzkopf said union supporters are focusing on the positives they see in unionizing.

“We’re not trying to disrupt workflow,” Schwarzkopf said. “We’re trying to just have some sort of say in things that affect us directly on a regular basis.”

In a statement emailed to the Labor Press, executive director Alice Smith said Joyful Noise “will always continue to support our employees, whatever the outcome of the election. If the employees elect to be represented by ILWU Local 5, we look forward to bargaining and developing a positive relationship with ILWU.”

Short staffed

Lana Quackenbush, lead teacher and union supporter

Lana Quackenbush, a lead teacher at the original downtown location, said work life has worsened since the pandemic began, and union supporters want a return to former conditions. When Quackenbush was hired over four years ago, there was a 90-day orientation period for new hires, a chance to acclimate and find a classroom that suits them. These days, new hires are put onto the job almost immediately. Quackenbush met her current co-teacher about an hour before she was assigned to her classroom. Workers also no longer have time to train new hires before they start working in the classroom, Quackenbush said, and teachers have less time outside of class to develop lesson plans or talk with other teachers.

Short staffing is a factor in the worsening conditions. Some workers left due to COVID-19 safety concerns in the early days of the pandemic, and that meant a larger workload for remaining workers. Larger workload led to burnout for some, and then additional departures exacerbated the shortage. Short staffing also means there are fewer staff members to cover teachers for breaks.

Safety worries worsen

Safety is also a growing problem. Three of the four facilities don’t have their own playgrounds, so teachers and children visit nearby public parks for recreation. 

At the original downtown location on Southwest First Avenue, they’ve visited Waterfront Park for more than 20 years without problems. But last summer, Quackenbush said, someone tried to take a cart of children away from a teacher, and the teacher had to intervene physically to prevent it. Later that month, someone brandished a weapon at two teachers and a group of children. One teacher distracted the assailant while the other evacuated the children. Since the center provides child care to federal employees, the U.S. General Services Administration recently created a security guard position to escort teachers and children on their walks to Waterfront Park.

Parents support union

The idea to unionize came in part from the parents the organization serves. Clients at the sites are federal employees, Metro employees, police officers and other public workers, most of whom are union represented.

“I think it was just a matter of time before one of the families put their hand up and said, ‘How come you guys aren’t all unionized,’ which is beautiful,” Quackenbush said.

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