By Rob Roper
MORRISVILLE: H.97, the bill that attempts to unionize early childhood educators, is “dead.” For now. And, I use quotes because, as Mark Twain said, no one is safe while the legislature is in session. Anything could happen. Nevertheless, the bill passed the house 90-55. (No Republican voted in favor; they were joined by a handful of Democrats in opposition.) But, when it hit the Senate, Senate President Pro Tem, John Campbell (D-Windsor), ordered the bill to the Senate Rules Committee, which Campbell chairs himself, where it will stay to gather dust. Again, for now.
This was the message Senator Richard Westman (R-Lamoille) related to a group of about twenty Lamoille County childcare providers, who met at the Green Mountain Technical Center to register their own opinions and to gather information about H.97 specifically, and the concept of unionization generally.
A plurality of the providers present were opposed to the union, three were in favor of it, and the rest hadn’t yet formed an opinion.
Tracy Patnoe of Mud City Childcare Center said, “I’m against the bill because I feel it is very important that my voice be heard from me, and not somebody representing me. My business is different from everybody else’s.” Pro-union forces have argued that childcare providers need a “voice at the table,” but many providers actually see this as the union co-opting the voices of providers. In a small state with small legislative districts, it is easy for childcare providers to have direct contact with their senators and represntatives. A middleman, particularly an unwanted middleman, they feel would only muddy those relationships.
Others were opposed to the union because of the way they had been treated by its representatives. Penny Burns of Penny’s Daycare in Jeffersonville commented, “When they come to my house, they left a bad taste in my mouth.” This sentiment was echoed by Carrie Lafountain of Care’s Daycare in Cambridge, “I am against the bill. I feel that they are very misleading. They have been out to my house several times for the union and each time they have a different story.”
Indeed, a bad experience with union representatives is, in large part, what is driving Sen. Campbell’s opposition to H.97. According to the Senator, Vermont AFL-CIO Ben Johnson came into his office and presented a piece of paper outlining all the money the union had given to Democratic causes, implying that now he was here to collect.
Campbell told Vermont Digger after the event, “The reason why I believe this bill [H.97] does not have the right to go forward is the tactics used to intimidate myself and this body are so against what good clean government is about, I think it would be rewarding bad behavior.”
Many of the providers were adamantly opposed to the notion that they would be forced to pay dues or “agency fees” to the union, even if they chose not to join. Senator Westman pointed out that, although under the original version of H.97 that was the case, in the version that passed the house, it was not. That provision had been removed. However, he warned, when a union is involved the issue of fees “is always a question. That issue always comes up.” It could resurface in this or future legislation, and probably would.
Those in favor of unionizing and of H.97 agreed with the notion that childcare providers do not have an adequate voice in the State House, certainly nothing on par with the NEA, and they see that as a real problem. Sonja Raymond of Apple Tree Learning Center in Stowe said, “I have spent a long time on many state committees, involved at the state level for over ten years… and, as loud as I have screamed for as many years as I have screamed, I haven’t always been heard. Not that my legislators and senators don’t listen to me, but in the end, my voice singularly has not been heard.”
Westman agreed with that problem, but wasn’t ready to commit to the idea that a union is or isn’t the solution. “There’s always two or three people from the NEA advocating for their interests in the State House,” he pointed out. “And they are very successful in cutting up the pie in their favor.” If the union isn’t the right way [to help childcare providers a fair shake], what is?… You [the providers] keep getting skunked.”
But skunked how? Westman pointed out in his remarks that all of these providers are small businesses and entrepreneurs. It’s the beauty of the market. It’s localized, personal care that’s tailored to the communities in which they operate. What the government has been trying to do to the hundreds of providers in Vermont like the twenty in this room is corral and control them. End the independent nature of their business, and make childcare a centralized entity of the state. There are many similarities to the active and aggressive efforts to drive doctors out of private practices and into the employment of more politically controllable hospitals.
Rep. Wright of Burlington encapsulated ramifications of this bill when explained his no vote on the House floor: “Mr. Speaker: H. 97 does nothing to improve the quality of child care and will likely, in fact, harm it. It will undermine the very important stars program as well as politically dividing the child care community. The good intentions of this bill are not matched by reality.”