Everyone wants to unionize early educators — except early educators

by Angela Chagnon

About one hundred union supporters crowded into the Cedar Creek Room at the State House on Tuesday afternoon urging lawmakers to pass H.97, a bill that would allow collective bargaining for childcare providers. Along with the ‘Kids Count On Me’ slogan on their blue shirts, many attendees wore “Healthcare is a Human Right” buttons.

Cathi St. Marie is the owner and operator of a registered home program in North Troy and head of Vermont Early Educators United (VEEU), an arm of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

“This legislation will make the top-down system of regulating my job and my business more fair by allowing professionals like me a say in how things are done by giving us the option to organize if we make that choice for ourselves,” said St. Marie. “Right now, we don’t have that choice. No matter what you’ve heard, all this bill does is give us that choice.”

Rebecca Haslam, former president of the Burlington Education Association and member of the Vermont NEA, balanced her toddler son on her hip as she spoke.

“Last fall when I attended a candidate’s forum with the Vermont Worker’s Center and early educators, I became a ‘Kids Count On Me’ voter,” Haslam shared. “I signed up to support these hardworking professionals and stand in solidarity with them as they fight for respect, quality, and a seat at the table.”

The legislative coordinator of “Voices of Vermont Children”, Sheila Reed, voiced her strong support for H.97. She said childcare providers “have struggled over the years with low wages, grueling hours, lack of benefits, and isolation.”

“Organized with collective bargaining rights, they become a strong force toward developing the best system available while improving their own working conditions,” Reed said. “What H.97 does is it brings to the table a true partnership between early educators and the state.”

Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) and his wife are expecting their first child. “As somebody who spent the first half of my life working in foodservice, I do find the idea that I might be bringing my new child to childcare, and if I stop at a diner on the way, I can know that the person working on the line there is likely earning more money than the provider that I’m going to be entrusting my baby with. There’s something wrong with that picture,” Pearson concluded.

Senator Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden) also spoke at the event, saying that the bill was about “small business for Vermont women” and “considering the entire continuum of education.”

However, many childcare providers are not convinced that H.97 will help them. Tonya Lachapelle of the non-profit Robin’s Nest Children’s Center in Burlington, said that she is worried about the bill’s effect on the systems already in place.

“Part of our frustration is that those who don’t want to be part of this union will be forced to be part of it,” Lachapelle explained. “The reason why I’m against it is I’m very concerned what this will do, the stress it will place on subsidies, stress on negotiations with legislators. Politicians have been very open to hearing our voices and bargaining with us in a very traditional way.”

St. Marie, Pearson and AFT-VT Executive Director Andrew Tripp denied that childcare providers would be forced to be part of the union. However, while the bill does say that providers will have a choice concerning union membership, sections 3609 and 3610 of H.97 clearly state:

“The exclusive representative certified by the state shall be the exclusive representative of all the child-care providers in the unit for the purposes of collective bargaining. …”

“(a) Upon the certification or recognition of the bargaining unit’s representative and ratification of a collective bargaining agreement, the state shall deduct the negotiated representative and fair share representation fees as agreed to in the collective bargaining agreement. …

(b) Child-care providers, acting through the exclusive representative, shall not charge a fair share representation fee without establishing and maintaining a procedure to provide nonmembers with:

(1) an audited financial statement … and

(2)an opportunity to object to the amount of the agency fee sought.”

(Emphasis added)

Under H.97, not only will the union representative be the exclusive rep of all childcare workers, but all childcare workers will have to pay fees regardless of whether they are members or not.

Siobhan Henry-Hooker, a childcare provider who works in Burlington, is outspoken about her personal views on this matter although her employer has taken a neutral stance on the issue.

“I do not support H.97 simply because it would force all early educators and home childcare providers to join the union,” wrote Henry-Hooker in an e-mail sent to me. “I do not feel that joining the union is the right choice for me, for many reasons.

“Up until this bill was generated, it seemed that the union could exist in Vermont in conjunction with many other organizations. However, when H.97 appeared, it clearly states that we would all have to be a part of the union whether we want to or not. I do not feel as though the union represents me, personally, and I do not want to be mandated to become a member.”