Margolis: The politics of a union drive in which the members are the bosses

Amy Ligay, executive director of the Children's Early Learning Center, stands with Sen. Peter Shumlin during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is a political columnist for

It was a union gathering to support a bill, but any doubts about it being an unconventional union gathering ended when the first speaker, Catherine Ste. Marie, said, “This legislation is not about us.”

John L. Lewis never said any such thing. Neither did Walter Reuther or Cesar Chavez. Neither does AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka. Union leaders have not been shy about declaring that their goals were all about their workers, and that what they wanted, in the celebrated and pithy description of 19th century labor leader Sam Gompers, was “more.”

So do the members of Vermont Early Educators United. But there’s one major difference, which was clear despite Sen. Richard McCormack’s invocation of famous lines from old labor anthems. It was a “which side are you on,” state of affairs, McCormack said, and he was “stickin’ with the union.”

But a traditional union organizing drive pits the workers against their employers, often called “the bosses” in the songs the Bethel Democrat was quoting. In this organizing drive, the union members are the bosses.

They are the operators of independent child care centers. The collective bargaining rights they seek are not vis-a-vis their employers. They have no employers. Some of them have employees, and the bill before the Legislature would not give those employees bargaining rights vis-a-vis their bosses. Instead, the amendment proposed by McCormack would give the operators the right to bargain collectively with the state, which subsidizes most of the cost of day care for lower income parents.

It’s an unusual concept which has aroused some opposition. So far most of the opposition has been muted. Proponents, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, the Vermont Democratic Party, and several lawmakers have praised the bill (H. 97) that passed the House last year and that is almost identical to McCormack’s proposed amendment to another labor bill. With one exception, opposition tends to be whispered rather than proclaimed around the Statehouse.

One reason so many Democrats support the measure and so few oppose it – or, perhaps more accurately, why so few will say they oppose it – is that Vermont Early Educators United is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, which contributed both money and shoe-leather to Democratic campaigns in 2010.

According to Senate President Pro tem John Campbell, a Quechee Democrat, at a meeting in February, the AFT’s Vermont president, Ben Johnson, slid a piece of paper across a table to Campbell, on which was written the amount the AFT had provided Vermont Democrats during the last election.

Perhaps not a wise move. Campbell is the one exception, the only senior Democrat who never supported the collective bargaining bill, worrying that if the state starts subsidizing “someone who just receives a subsidy, hundreds of other groups could do the same thing.”

Campbell said he considered Johnson’s reminder of the union’s financial backing a form of “intimidation,” strengthening his determination to block the bill. But it might be hard for him to stop McCormack’s amendment from coming to the Senate floor. It appears germane to the workers compensation measure it would amend, and many members of the Democratic majority would no doubt find it difficult to vote against an amendment with strong backing from unions and from their own party organization.

Sen. John Campbell, file photo by Josh Larkin.

Sen. John Campbell, file photo by Josh Larkin.

Another reason few legislators are vocal in their opposition to the legislation is that most of them would like to help the women (and very few men) who care for two-, three-, and four-year-olds while their parents are at work. The child care workers may be independent entrepreneurs, but they are hardly in the top 1 percent of income-earners. Most are probably not in the top 50 percent.

Anna Gebhardt, who describes herself as a registered, licensed, “early educator” in Burlington said the most she can charged is $210 a week per child, as much as $110 of which could be paid by the state. Child care providers can have as many as six children in their care during the school year, which would bring in $1,260 per week or about $45,000 for the school year. Providers could gross  as much as another $20,000 during the summer, assuming their facilities were full all summer.

But that assumes that the day care facility will be full for the entire school year. And that’s gross income. The care providers obviously have expenses. Gebphardt, for instance, has one employee. All the providers have to buy equipment and furnishings.

Like the other providers, Gebhardt said money was not as important is being “respected as a professional,” and being “treated as the true experts” in early childhood education.

But respect and income are related in this country, and despite their rhetoric (and t-shirt slogans) insisting that their chief concern is for the children, all of them acknowledge that a higher income is one of their goals.

They have rejected suggestions, including, reportedly, one from Campbell, that they accept more money in return for dropping the collective bargaining demand. No doubt this position is encouraged by the AFT, which wants more dues-paying members. But the child care providers are also serious about playing a role in forming early childhood education policy.

Ste. Marie, a home provider in North Troy, said that the state recently changed its bonus payments plan for providers like her who qualify for the STARS (Step Ahead Recognition System) designation, in which providers with superior credentials and performance get slightly higher subsidies. The state increased the bonus, she said, but gave the increase to the parents, not the providers.

“It was a wonderful thing to do but the wrong way to do it,” she said.

Asked what would be a better way, she said, “I don’t know, but I want (the provider community) to be part of the process for making those decisions.”

This raises the possibility that officials from the Department of Children and Families, the agency that arranges the subsidies to the providers, are not in favor of the collective bargaining bill. No such opposition has been voiced, but government officials rarely like to see any reduction in their ability to set the rules as they see fit.

Though collective bargaining between states and independent businesses is rare, it is not unheard of. Martha Braithwaite, an organizer for the union effort, said 14 states have similar systems of collective bargaining for child care providers.

The final outcome remains uncertain. Campbell has reportedly indicated to some that even if the amendment passes, he might refuse to name Senate members to a House-Senate conference committee to resolve the differences in the two measures. That could effectively kill the bill for this year.

If that happens, expect Early Educators United and the AFT to be back next year, when (if Statehouse scuttlebutt is to be credited) there might a different Senate President. The providers insisted at their demonstration Tuesday that they were determined, and they appear to be, inspired, perhaps, by one of the few old labor song lines Dick McCormack did not recite for them: “Don’t mourn. Organize!”

A child care provider’s possible earnings figure was corrected in this story on April 18 at 10:23 a.m.

Jon Margolis

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  • Patrick Cashman

    This proposed forced unionization of a an entire profession has several problems:

    1. It is unnecessary. All of those things proponents claim to want to accomplish can already be accomplished by our elected government, who are answerable to the tax payers about how their funds are spent. Sticking big labor into the equation does nothing except forcibly transfer our tax dollars through subsidies into the AFT’s bank account. Which the AFT then uses to further corrupt our political process in the future.

    2. It sets the real employers; parents, at greater remove from the negotiating table when decisions are being made about their children. Currently subsidy rates are set by state agencies responsible to the people. In the future subsidies will be negotiated between big labor and those agencies, with the people not invited into the process.

    3. It legalizes a cartel. Seperate independent businesses banding together to fix and control production, pricing and marketing of goods. How is that ever good for consumers?

    4. By forcibly unionizing an entire profession, not just individual shops, it tramples upon the providers’ right to choose who they associate with and support. Regardless of whether or how much an individual provider supports the chosen union if they want to work in this particular profession they will be required to pay (support) that union. You cannot choose to opt out, you cannot choose to withold your support. Unions will cite the danger of the “free rider” who benefits from union activities without paying for them, however to what extent that argument is reasonable it is no longer reasonable when you are talking about forced unionization of an entire profession instead of a single employer. While an electrician can choose to walk away from a union shop and work for another if he doesn’t wish to support the union, a childcare provider will not be able to do that. If you want to be a childcare provider, you will pay up, period.

    5. It tramples upon parents’ right to choose whether they will or will not support a union. Just as above, once the entire profession is forcibly unionized consumers will have no non-union alternative to choose to patronize. Child care is a necessity, not a luxury, and parents will be forced to patronize union shops because of the lack of alternatives.

    Ultimately, subsidies are our tax dollars, so why would we meekly give away what control we have in how they are spent to a union? The vigor and aggressiveness with which the AFT is attacking those who stand in their way is telling, the AFT knows this is a sweetheart deal and are willing to threaten or steamroll those who stand in their way to an unending torrent of tax dollars. Good on Mr. Campbell for having the bravery to stand up to them.

    • Sandy Walker

      Each argument here is absolutely faulty.

      1. If it weren’t necessary that why do working and middle class families not have the kind of support actually needed to have the right to high quality affordable child care? Why is there 40% turnover in the profession and early educators paid less than parking attendants? Every other industrialized nation invests more in early education and care that we do. It’s a smart investment but elected leaders year after year continue to ignore it. And decisions are not made by those who know the complexities of working with families in our communities every day.

      2. If decisions the state makes now about early education and care are accountable to the ‘people’ why are there cuts to programs that keep people in the workforce and economy adding to society and investing in our economy. This is a crazy argument because as we know the people who fought to make workspaces safe and fought for our right for decent pay that built the middle class and help people realize the American dream was organized labor–the workers who organized. 

      3. Laughable how inaccurate this is and the next point. Early educators each set their own rates now and will continue to. It would be illegal for them to price set now and ever. Nothing changes with this bill or any organizing effort. Check your facts read the actual bill or some actual labor law. 

      4. Same as above: get your facts straight. The fear talk has really gone to your head. Nothing about winning the right to organize a union forces anyone to join or pay to be a part of it. That is a completely different debate. 

      5. Parents maintain all rights to choose the place best suited for their child. If I were choosing I would want the best place where a recognized professional is supported and where my child is not having to lose their early education teacher every 6months. The truth is that there will be some programs who are a part and some who are not. The choices remain better if we make smart decisions as a society to listen to people who work with kids and families every day and invest early– the facts about the affect of quality early learning experiences is staggering in brain development, cost saving down the line and higher productivity in society. Your protectiveness about tax dollars as you say are actually being taken away by NOT investing in early education and care. 

      Oh and..

      PS hate to break it to you but John Campbell who you congratulated is a huge fan of unions and workers rights. 

      He is just unwilling to give a profession of mostly women the right to have a union. 

      • Patrick Cashman

        Ms. Walker.

        1. Nothing you listed has to do with a lack of authority on the part of our elected representatives. Any of those things could be accomplished today, perhaps using all the time and effort being expended on assuring the AFT a direct tap into our public coffers through the current bill. You need to realize that the fact that your own personal views are not implemented does not indicate a failure of democracy or need to eliminate the role of the taxpayers, through their elected leaders, in decisions as to how their money is spent.
        2. The lawmakers are accountable to their constituents, and so it should remain. If their constituents want to invest more, then they can make that known through their elected representatives without the artificial, intrusive, and unnecessary involvement of big labor. Again, just because your personal views are not implemented does not indicate a failure of an elected system of government.
        3. The proposed forced unionization would create a single block of independent businesses colluding to determine how much they will receive from the government in the form of subsidies, which bears directly on pricing. Of course it is price fixing.
        4. If the profession is unionized, those who wish to practice that profession will at a minimum pay agency fees to the union. I would suggest you get your facts straight.
        5. In the absence of non-union shops following mandatory unionization, parents will have no choice but to obtain the necessary service of child care through a union shop. While you may choose to patronize union establishment, others may not. However that option will be taken from them as an entire profession is unionized by the stroke of a pen.

        As for Mr. Campbell, I applaud his intestinal fortitude in standing up to the bullying, intimidation and threats of the AFT. I only wish more of our elected leaders would do a better job of putting the interests of their constituents ahead of the interests of their big money donors.

  • Alex Barnham

    I can think of many ways to educate children well without a heavy overlay of regulation and expense. The success of our educational system depends upon educated parents. Eventually an unsustainable system of education will have to change and those changes will come when we realize we have to help educate parents. What should have been done yesterday or ASAP.

  • Peter Dannenberg

    The statement “Child care providers can have as many as six children in their care during the school year, which would bring in $1,260 per week or about $450,000 for the school year.” is wrong. Most American K-12 schools teach about 36 weeks a year. $1,260 times 36 equals $45,360, not $450,000.

    Many working mothers need child care year-round, not just when school is in session. More weeks of care increase child-care providers’ annual gross incomes, but $450,000 is impossible.

    • Cate Chant

      That error has been corrected.

  • John Greenberg

    “which would bring in $1,260 per week or about $450,000 for the school year.” Hunh? Must be a LONG year!

  • Jody Marquis

    I am speaking as a parent, child and family advocate, and founder/owner of a Nationally Accredited Childcare Center. I also speak to you as someone who has spent 13 years navigating the system in my quest to use childcare as a way to make a difference in the lives of children. My goal in writing this memo is to…

    1. Keep children and families at the forefront of the discussion.

    2. Validate the need for a union from this perspective.

    3. Clarify the goals of our union.

    As a parent I can tell you that I WISH my children and I had the qaulity childcare that the center I founded provides. My children and I have spent tireless years undoing the negative impacts that my lack of knowledge in child and self development had on my children when they were little. Quility early care and education engages families in a process of growing and learning. It does not exclude the family. I did not have this for my family and could only do what I knew. Means to say some of my decisions were not what was best for my children, but instead, the only decisions I knew how to make at the time.

    The early childhood model created at Creative Minds Children’s Center is testimony to all that I didn’t have… that I want others to have…. including home visiting, developmental assessment, parent education, community resource and referral, and opportunities to be involved in their child’s early development.

    I can also testify that qaulity childcare bridges the gap for all the supports and services people are not able to access for their children in the community. Quality childcare providers are the “one person” the could make a difference in the life of a child/family.

    Ask yourself. If 70% of our children are in childcare, wouldn’t we want to make sure that the profession has what it needs to get the job done? For years we have been doing the job with little to no recognition of the importance.

    Children do not have a say in our decisions. Every day they rely on their family and community to love them, care for them, educate them, protect them, and the list goes on. The fact is that childcare workers are the lowest paid profession in our country. We are mostly wormen, and yes, many of us got into the profession to take care of children, but then realized we were also running a business and providing a social service.

    I am someone who entered the field with very little training and experience…but a vision to make a difference in the lives of others. Children and families are my focus and I would like to get back to why childcare workers have made the choice to ask for the rights to form a union.

    I and the collegues I am involved with believe in qaulity standards. We also know first hand the cost of maintaining them. I have always believed in collaborative efforts and work hard to sustain postive relationships with the people who make decisions. I have learned that my relationships are just that. One voice is just a voice. Trying to advocate for systems change for a profession as one person has proven to be a daunting task. Advocating for systems change through committees and advocacy groups has also proven to be a failure.

    I have always been at the table to discuss what works and what doesn’t about the system. Ten years ago if I was asked to be part of forming a union I would have been on the side of the opposition. We all make decisions based on our beliefs and experiences. My experience from 1999 until today has crafted my belief that our field does need to unionize. Let me explain. I have always been part of the legislative process. This includes local councils, committees, elected positions at the state level, and organized advocacy groups. I have one on one relationships with my local legislator’s and consider myself to be a server of my community. I have spent tireless hours engaging parents and community members in giving testimony about the crisis in accessing high quality, affordable, and reliable childcare. The system did not MOVE from 1999 until 2008, in which, our program then sat in the middle of a cross fire while the state of Vermont finally decided to restructure the tuition assistance program on the backs of the programs that created cost effective models to replicate.

    Every ounce of work that our center had done on behalf of “working together with the State” for the children and families of our community was diminished through a change in leadership. One decision changed our entire program structure and the abiility to serve the families we are committed to. I had no say. I had no choice. The unintentional consequences were devestating to our community. Our program endured a $120,000.00 reduction to our budget in which we closed a school age program serving 40 children, consolidated services, and got very busy seeking out partnerships within our community to bridge some of the finacial gap.

    Our local Head Start program applied for funds to insert money into our infant and toddler program, our facilities finance contacts supported us in re-organizing our loans and building cost, and our center spent a year transitioning into our new way of operating….only to receive notice of another $150,000.00 reducation to our budget in the next fiscal year.

    Our center, which has gone from serving 120 children to planning our funeral, can validate that our profession needs a legally binding say in the decisions that impact our programs. The union provides this.

    Over the past year, I have felt like I was being squashed like a bug because of this experience. It was Senetor Bobbi Starr and Chuck Pierce that supported me and another collegue experiencing the same with her program. It was they that got us in front of the appropriations committee to ask for a budget adjustment. All of my time was spent making the case as to why the decisions being made at the state level were closing qaulity programs.

    In the end we ended up with an adjustment of emergency funding and a clear notice from the state that this funding would not be used to sustain a program. In my opinion we were given six months to live. My collegue and I are not able to get anyone to listen to us regarding fiscal year 2013 and our center has no choice but to begin consolidating slots. Again, it is the community that will not have access to high qaulity intervention, prevention, and education services for their neediest and most vulnerable population deserve. As a matter a fact, when I presented that facts to the state of Vermont regarding the financial impact of these decisions I received a written memo stating ” We are sorry if your program has to close, however, we will support your families in finding new placements”

    There are NO other placements for families in our region that allow for full day full year comprehensive services.

    Because of this, our center will be closing our second building, consolidating into one space, and I will find another job and take myself off the payroll. These are the sacrifices that providers make every day on behalf of our families so that they can go to work and their children can have opportunities. Our services should not be a CHARITY. I love to serve my community, but I also want to make a livable wage with some benefits like everyone else. I have worked my way off the welfare system only to find that our system does not support this effort. It needs to change.

    I want to work with people, not sit in endless- tiring meetings, that in my opinion…are not focusing on the problem. I deserve to be paid for the leadership, managment, and contribution I make to society…as do the people working with me and others working in the profession. It is the children and families who lose out because we do not have a legally binding say in the decision making process.

    Our union will give our profession a voice and it will stop the bleeding. When decisions cannot be made without our say then we will then be able to inform the system of the best way to use the resources we have. We will then be able to ask for what we need based on the cost of providing the service. We expect to work hard, we expect to be held accountable for doing qaulity work. We expect that people will disagree…we deserve the right to make our decision to form a union.

    It is our profession that will vote on a union not this bill. This bill gives us the right to do so. Our profession is asking for that right. Providers will have the say. NOT AFT, not the local legislator’s, and not the state of Vermont. Providers will decide. We will vote and we will deal with any and all negative and positive results as part of the process. There is always a negative and there is always a positive in every decision that is made. We are used to dealing with adversity and we are up for the challenge.

    I have always believed that I could make a difference in the system. I always thought that if I was involved, honest, and true to the meaning of our work, the system would follow. I could write a book on all the reasons why that isn’t true in the big picture. I see both sides, and because I have been on both I can say that there is nothing for providers to lose by having a legally binding say in the decisions that impact their programs.

    Parents cannot afford to pay more than they pay and we cannot afford to compensate more than we are. This has nothing to do with having a legally binding say in decisions. Having a union is not going to raise the cost for our families. It will give us the bargaining power to ensure that parents’ needs are part of the equation. You can’t get blood out of a stone. Our system is based on the market rate system. Parents have clearly shown us what they can bare for payment because our market rate tells us that. We can raise our rates. We will only be giving larger “charity scholorships” So this is not about making it harder for our families. It is about having a voice through our profession to advocate for the way to spend the tax payers money and to ask for what we need to do the valuable job that we hold. Why would we not want that for our children and our families.

    Our union with give us a way to have a legally binding say in any changes or needs moving forward…on behalf of our families.

    Finally, When leadership changes, so do the ideas. We need to know that our voice is not a choice.

    Jody Marquis
    Creative Minds Children’s Center
    Orleans County
    673-7405 if people would like the book 🙂

    • Patrick Cashman

      Ms. Marquis,
      Several issues with your comment.

      1. It is incorrect to say “I had no say, I had no choice.” You had a vote and a representative, just like every other taxpayer. There is no reason a specific group should have binding say in how taxes are spent merely because of their profession, just as police officers should not be able to arbitrarily dictate how much our taxes go towards public safety or military members should be able to dictate how much of our taxes end up with the Department of Defense. These are decisions we make as a community through our elected representatives who are accountable to us for their actions.

      2. In regards to choosing union representation it is incorrect to say “Providers will decide”, it is more correct to say 51% of providers will decide for all providers. You are correct, however, that once this initial decision to change the law to allow the formation of a union is made the rest of Vermont will no longer have a say in the matter. Decisions will then be negotiated behind closed doors as to how our tax dollars will be spent forever into the future, and parents will have no option but to provide financial support to the union regardless of their feelings about any such decisions.

      Childhood education is one of those topics automatically given the benefit of the doubt, after all how could anything associated with child care be bad? But the true topic here is that giving a union, a type of organization that by its very nature represents only the supply side of the equation and not the consumer, and strives to get its members the largest possible renumeration and benefit, unfettered access to taxpayer dollars is folly.

      We, through our elected representatives, already have the ability to provide higher subsidies and formal training and certification. Heck, if it were the public will we could provide state operated, taxpayer supported childcare facilities in every town. If that is the public will then let’s get on our elected representatives to make it happen and hold them accountable if it doesn’t. But let’s not hand over a portion of our authority as voters to a union that represents only a small percentage of the population. Once we do, it can’t be undone.

  • Alex Barnham

    As unemployment grows, more people will be able to stay at home and take care of their children…we have not seen the end of the tunnel…double incomes are going to dwindle and so are the taxes revenues. It is happening so get used to the changes.

  • Emily Pryer

    I am an early educator with over 16 years experience and a member of the organizing committee of Vermont Early Educators United, AFT.  

    I am building our union with my colleagues so that we can have a voice in making decisions that affect our profession.  We have increased awareness about the importance of the work that we do each day.  Because of our work, early childhood education has become a priority for our elected officials.

    In response to the previous post by Patrick:

    Yes, we do have representation in our elected leaders and yes, we can choose to vote for the candidate that best reflects our beliefs.  However, that is not the point. As a child care provider without a union, I only have one voice being heard  – my own.  AND it is a more easily ignored voice.  When myself and my colleagues come together we have strength in unity of voices.  WE ARE HEARD.  The Union Makes Us Strong!

    Children and families will only benefit from early educators unionizing. Parents of young children cannot afford to work at the wages available in many Vermont communities. After paying for childcare they do not come out ahead.  Nor can they afford not to work.  A family that earns $36,000 a year does not qualify for subsidy.  Yet annual cost of care for one child can be $10,000-$12,000.   And the families who do qualify for child care subsidy still have co-pays on their tuition that most cannot afford to pay.   

    Recently, lawmakers have suggested that they will put more money into the child care subsidy system. This has only happened because early educators have organized and have raised awareness about the importance of this issue. This is significant evidence that early educators have value to offer to the state in its role in policy-making decisions. Only early educators know the day-to-day challenges and successes.

    Early childhood educators are the union.  Thus, we will decide all union representation through the democratic process – by voting.  Every single early educator in Vermont will have the opportunity to vote on who represents them.  And yes, this could be 51% that chooses to vote and elect the leaders of our union. As with most elections not everyone chooses to vote.  In the last presidential election the total was only 61.6 percent of the nation’s eligible voters chose to vote.  This is our democratic process.  

    Currently the amount of taxpayer dollars that is distributed to the Child Development Division  is determined by the Vermont State Legislature.   That won’t change when early educators have collective bargaining rights. The child development division determines how the “taxpayer dollars” are distributed. Since as early educators, we are experts in the field, we truly know how the decisions will impact the child care field and the children and families we serve.  This insight will be invaluable in making the best decision on how to spend the “taxpayer dollars” most efficiently and effectively. Getting the best bang for our taxpayer bucks!

    Some people have said we are too aggressive or that we don’t need a union.  They say we should just let the legislature take care of things.  But we have seen our profession make more gains through organizing than ever before.  We are committed to continuing on this path until we granted the respect and recognition we deserve, as true decision making partners with the state.  

    • Patrick Cashman

      Ms. Pryer,
      Is it your contention that childcare providers should have more of a say than other Vermonters in how the state expends tax dollars? You acknowledged that currently you have the same level of representation as other citizens, yet you don’t find that sufficient. Frankly, much of this argument seems strikingly self-serving.
      Let’s also not forget that a union exists not only to extract the maximum benefit for its members, but also to buy influence and pay their own salaries. In the case of AFT these extra costs are significant; as an example they have nine employees at their headquarters who earn over $200,000 and a president who earns $428,000, they also gave $2.4 million in political “gifts” from 2009-2011 alone. Why would we willingly insert such a parasitic organization into discussions of how our taxes will be spent?
      As I said before, we already have all the authority required to accomplish the goals you speak of. All the time and energy (and money) spent on trying to get the AFT a controlling interest in our budget would have been better spent on actually advocating to achieve those goals. Unfortunately union advocates have gotten away with equating the welfare of AFT with the welfare of our children. It’s time to make it clear that these are seperate issues.

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