when child care workers fought back

2 03 2013

Susan Dorazio on a proud history and of the lessons to be learnt.

In the first decade of the 20th Century, agitation by women in the industrial parts of the world for their civil rights and for their rights as workers was gaining momentum. Inspired by this increased militancy– and by the organizing in 1909 of National Woman’s Day by the Woman’s National Committee of the Socialist Party of America– the Women’s Congress of the Second International, meeting in Copenhagen in 1910, approved the call by German Socialist Clara Zetkin and other delegates to create a Women’s Day to foster international solidarity among socialist women.

Women's Day
In contrast to the liberal movements for woman’s suffrage and workers’ rights, and in opposition to war and social injustice, International Women’s Day would be firmly placed in the context of the global capitalist system, one that basically refuses to recognize, let alone heed, the needs and rights of women.

In the last decade of the 20th Century, another reawakening, also focusing on workers’ rights in the context of the range of women’s roles in society, was occurring in the United States. For the better part of the 1990’s, hundreds of child care workers, including myself, took part in a grassroots project called the Worthy Wage Campaign. Through fact-finding, consciousness raising, marches, rallies, street festivals, letter-writing, and media contact– and under the banner of ‘Rights, Raises, and Respect’– we confronted what was called the staffing crisis, and were determined to reverse it. Of immediate concern was the revolving door of miserably-paid child care workers and the effect this had on children and families.
As this phenomenon started getting sorted out through data from centers and interviews with workers, certain facts became clear. First and foremost was that our low wages and lack of benefits and good working conditions were subsidizing the cost of child care, either to ‘ease the burden’ on parents if there were fees to pay, or on government whose spending priorities invariably put human services such as child care at the bottom of the list.
As we got deeper into our understanding of the various crises in child care many of us started to understand their systemic nature and the ways workers, families, and community members were getting manipulated and pitted against each other. We would see that this was serving to derail us from taking the kind of collective action that would really challenge and transform capitalism, the root cause of the crises that riddled the care and education sectors.
To find allies, some of us Worthy Wage campaigners worked hard to get the rights of child care workers, families, and children on the agenda of human rights, social justice, and radical labour groups. At the same time, those of us affiliated with the IWW, socialist organisations, and/or women’s rights/liberation projects did the reverse: i.e., encouraged child care workers to get involved with the broader movement for social change, since our issues were so often the same. I had what I considered the extra advantage of being a socialist feminist in an overwhelmingly-female workforce. This helped me see my experiences as a child care worker from both a class and a gender perspective. Others, also, came to appreciate the fact that patriarchy and misogyny had a lot to do with our low pay, low status, and tendency to undervalue ourselves.
Unfortunately, liberal politics won out, and by 2002, the Worthy Wage Campaign was now headquartered in Washington, D.C., renamed the Center for the Child Care Workforce, and officially a project of the mainstream American Federation of Teachers Educational Fund. Empowerment for radical change of the relationship between workers, families, and communities– based on full government funding for good wages and benefits, low child-staff ratios, high quality facilities, support services, and free tuition– had become a vague reference to a “well-educated” workforce, receiving “better compensation, and a “voice” in their workplace.
Meanwhile, in Scotland the public sector nursery nurses, members of Unison, were getting fed up with government stone-walling on their own child care crisis. The ruse of so-called professionalism that had undermined the militancy of the Worthy Wage Campaign was playing itself out in Scotland in the form of expanded job descriptions but no pay increases for the added responsibilities. In fact, there had been no salary review since 1988 in any of the Scottish councils in charge of overseeing the nurseries.
By the end of 2003, between 4,000 and 5,000 nursery nurses, disgusted by the intransigence of both the councils and COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) had voted for strike action that led to a series of regional one- or two-day strikes, accompanied by rallies and demonstrations. and by March 1st, 2004, the nursery nurses were ready to engage in an all-out, indefinite, strike for a national settlement on pay raises in line with their current job requirements and the importance of their work.
Unfortunately, but predictably, the standard business-union tactics of Unison not only failed to sufficiently support solidarity among the nursery nurses but failed to foster links between the nursery nurses and workers in other sectors, and between the nurses and their centers’ families and communities when more picket support and public outcry might well have changed the strike’s outcome.
Instead, the rallying cry for a national settlement– basic to the goal of equal pay for equal work, and so vital to enabling the nursery nurses to maintain their resolve– was dropped by Unison based on a pledge of a national review of pay and working conditions at some point in the future. This led to significant discrepancies between the pay settlements negotiated between the union and individual councils and, undoubtedly, to demoralization among the workers when the 12-week strike ended.
Fast forward to London at the end of January 2013, when early years minister, Elizabeth Truss, proposed changes to child-staff ratios in child care centers in England, as well as the expansion of education requirements for the workers. In child care and other human service sectors this strategy usually works particularly well because it employs the mythology of success through individual effort and perseverance, and platitudes about the importance of our work, while exploiting the workers’ collective dedication and compassion. At the same time, it promises families and tax payers that with one stroke of administrative genius, child care (or whatever) will be ‘cost-effective’ and thus less burdensome.
This is a sham, and workers, families, and community activists need to say so via direct and coordinated actions. Child care workers and supporters must hammer away at the fact that wages, benefits, staffing ratios, appreciation of our efforts, and recognition and support of our skills and interests are prime determinants of quality child care– and none of these factors should or need to get ignored.
For those of us who participated in the Worthy Wage Campaign in the U.S. or the nursery nurses strike in Scotland, the ridiculous atomizing of quality child care that Truss’s proposal represents is an all-too-familiar tactic or diverting attention from those responsible for the wholly inadequate public funding of social services by cleverly focusing attention on the blameless.
Liz Truss and her ilk need to be told that we won’t stand for their continual trade-off schemes, such as further education and training as a pre-condition for good wages and working conditions. By this time, we should know that quality care and quality jobs cannot be an either/or proposition. Ways must be found to enable them to occur simultaneously, and with the rights, needs, and final say of the staff at the core of this planning.
By turning the spotlight, and turning up the heat, on purposely convoluted pseudo-solutions to serious social problems, and on the rapid erosion of the public sector leading to the withering of social services, we will surely advance the struggle for the global unity of the working class.
Furthermore, by remembering the courage and commitment of such women workers as the Worthy Wage campaigners in the U.S. and the striking nursery nurses in Scotland– acting on behalf of their rights and those of all women and all workers– we honor the founders, and perpetuate the meaning, of International Women’s Day in the best way possible.

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