Disunity over union bill

by Angela Chagnon

A letter about H.97– An act relating to early childhood educators, sent to legislators from Mary Burns of the Early Educators for Children Coalition, raises several questions about the bill related to subsidies and budget issues. After listing the questions, the letter concludes:

“We understand that the committee is considering eliminating child care centers from the bill. This change does not address our concerns, and in fact may make the bill worse. If home-based providers are allowed to form their own union, they would be authorized to negotiate agreements with the state that could have a dramatic impact on child care centers. This is particularly true if the legislature does not intend to appropriate additional funds for child care services.

We respectfully request that you address the questions that are raised above before passing H.97. This legislation could have far-reaching impacts on Vermont’s children.”

Thirty-eight childcare organizations from around the state are listed as the Coalition’s members.

The House Human Services Committee also took testimony from Dave Edie, an early education policy analyst for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. Edie testified via telephone about Wisconsin’s childcare unionization, which Vermont’s bill H.97 is modeled after. Fourteen states have some form of childcare union.

Edie explained that the reason for unionization was that childcare workers believed they could get better pay rates through bargaining without having to achieve higher standards.

“What were the results in terms of improved childcare because of this [unionization]?” asked Rep. Francis “Topper” McFaun, (R-Barre Town).

“I guess in terms of improved quality, they would probably argue that they prevented payment rates and other things that would have made it financially difficult to provide childcare through the subsidy system,” remarked Edie. “But they probably helped support Wisconsin’s subsidy program that you could argue was more solvent and had less negative effects on childcare. They certainly did not contribute to getting the quality rating and improvement system through.”

Although the bill does not force childcare workers to join the union, there is currently no language in the bill that rules out “agency fees” – a fee that union non-members are forced to pay.

The primary purpose of the union, according to ranking Human Services Committee member Ann Donahue (R-Northfield), is to bargain for subsidies, and to negotiate rates and professional training opportunities. Donahue had earlier submitted alternative language, replacing “collective bargaining” with the non-binding process known as “meet and confer”, but the proposal was rejected by the committee.

“The majority of the committee wants to go in the direction of a union,” said Donahue, though she does not support the bill herself. “It’s a new concept for what the union would be, it’s not employees bargaining with an employer.”

“Everyone agrees that childcare is essential,” said committee chair Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington). She said that discussion and debate is the best way to implement needed changes to the childcare system. “Pre-K might be considered a subsidy,” she remarked. Pugh pointed out that the subset of H.97 is to provide the right to negotiate over subsidies and quality of childcare.