Labour and Early Learning and Child Care: An Ideal Union

Article excerpt

Unionization is beneficial not only for the child care workforce but also for the children in unionized centres, their parents, and for the whole society.'

For centuries, unions have played a pivotal role in putting the concerns of working people forward to employers and to governments. More recently, they have also been partners in social and economic policy development and advocacy on universal, accessible, affordable, publicly funded and accountable, inclusive, quality early learning and child care that supports children's development. Union involvement in advocacy has been crucial for moving early learning and child care onto the public and political stage and for improving daily working conditions, wages and benefits of those working in the sector.

In Canada the collaboration on early learning and child care policy between unions, advocacy groups, and professional organizations has been unique and has helped the issue of early learning and child care to remain vibrant in public policy debates despite the lack of action by most governments so far to develop a system.

This article is an examination of four key ways in which unions have contributed and continue to contribute to building a quality early learning and child care system: advocacy, sector professionalism, negotiation of wages and working conditions, and organizing. It also outlines some of the key struggles in the movement for publicly-funded, universal child care.

Advocacy

There are a number of reasons for the ongoing role of labour in the fight for a Canada-wide child care system: promoting a healthy work-life balance; enhancing women's equality; fostering social solidarity; and defending our public infrastructure. Many unions have active child care committees dedicated to moving early learning and child care issues forward internally among their members and in the public arena. Campaigns include: the ongoing effort at the national level to win an early learning and child care system; pressuring governments at the provincial level to establish and fund early learning and child care plans, increase grants and raise wages; and working with parents and boards of directors lobbying local governments to improve child care services and wages, and reduce parent fees.

Labour unions in Canada have been key partners advocating for developing a public early learning and child care system that meets the needs of today's families because such a system (along with other supports like maternity, parental, and family leaves) helps parents balance work and family.

Unions also recognize the pivotal importance of early learning and child care for women's equality, since mothers continue to bear the primary responsibility for children. More than 73% of mothers with children under six are in the workforce but there's only enough regulated early learning and child care for 15% of children 12 and under. Most mothers who work outside the home have to cobble together unregulated child care of uneven quality. A 2009 Statistics Canada study2 shows that women pay a high price for having children: childless women earn 12% more than those with children. Additionally, the earning gap grows for women with university education.

Unions recognize that quality early learning and child care fosters social solidarity across the boundaries of class, ethnicity, race, culture, language, sexual orientation, ability and geography.

Unions representing workers in the early learning and child care sector advocate for the development of a system as a way of gaining proper funding that helps guarantee the quality of the child care and the jobs in the field. Studies show that public/nonprofit programs are higher quality as they put their resources into programs, involve parents, communities and governments in planning and tend to follow practices that support quality, such as hiring better-trained staff and paying them more. As well, advocacy groups and unions have pressed governments to ensure all new public funds for early learning and child care go to public/non-profit programs in order to stave off trade challenges that pave the way for "big box" commercial child care to move in and set up shop. …