One thing that the pandemic has shown us is that child care is essential, valuable, and skilled labor. But childcare providers have had to fight for basic labor protections and a decent wage. According to Child Care Providers United, the newly recognized union of childcare providers in California, “the median income for these providers is $12 an hour, but some licensed providers make as little as $5 an hour per child. Fifty-eight percent rely on government assistance programs to support their families.” Providers are overwhelmingly women of color and immigrants, and the state has failed to provide the support necessary to make childcare a living wage job. 

Earlier this year, childcare providers and early childhood educators in California made history when they voted to form Child Care Providers United, a new union that will represent roughly 45,000 workers across the state. Their victory was the result of a 17-year effort led by three locals — AFSCME-United Domestic Workers 3930 and SEIU Locals 99 and 521 — with the support of community organizations. As Jovanna Hernandez, one of the organizers on the campaign, recounted, “This triumph was paved by a broad ecology of organizations, from Parent Voices to Local 1000 parent union workers showing up at the capital for our events.”

How did they do it? By organizing one provider at a time to build a powerful movement of workers who, despite not sharing a workspace or even an employer, came to see themselves as part of a community with shared challenges and aspirations. In this interview, Jovana Hernandez, an organizer with SEIU 99, talks with The Forge about the work that it took to build to a 97 percent majority. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Read about the other interviews and articles in the series here

 

Tell me about yourself and what brought you to this campaign.

I am the daughter of Mexican immigrants. My father is a piñata maker, self-employed. And I started working with a childcare campaign in October 2013. Working with childcare providers is very rewarding. It's predominantly women of color who are very selfless. I am always amazed at everything childcare providers do to support our working families. They work long hours and they still are in it to build a union, not only for themselves, but for the children. 

Every time we'd ask providers, "What would you do if we won a rate increase?" They would mention, "Reinvest it in my facility and my business," whether it's buying new materials, new playground, hiring new staff or new teachers. 

Childcare providers work long hours, and they don't get paid. They get paid the same amounts, whether they provide 80 hours a week or 30 hours a week. It's a set rate, so whenever the states invest in childcare providers they're investing in the children.

The cost of living is really expensive here in California, and parents are juggling so many jobs that they just don't have the time to get home from work to help the children with their homework, to read to the children, to make sure that the children know their phonics and their sights words; it's at the childcare facilities. Providers train themselves, they go to workshops, they attend classes and learn the best ways to support the early development of the children.

 

How has the campaign evolved over the seven years that you have been a part of it?

I started as staff with the International Union, and it's very different when the IU is running a campaign versus the local is running a campaign. When the IU was running this, there was no staff retention. There was a lot of turnover among staff, which [makes it] really hard to build relationships and truly understand the industry. If there's no staff retention or there's a high turnover, then you're starting all over again every time a new staff enters this campaign. In 2012, childcare providers joined Local 99, so it was Local 99's organizing effort. Being part of Local 99, I learned so much. 

Local 99 providers were more involved with local politics, which includes electing the state superintendent of public instruction; after [we] support[ed] this superintendent, they support[ed] the childcare providers. Providers have quarterly input meetings with the Department of Education, where providers are able to bring up issues that have not been able to be resolved at the agency level. 

 

What were the challenges of building those relationships to influence public policy? It sounds like that was really key to get the providers what they needed and what they deserved.

It's very difficult to just focus on building a union without also focusing on the system and how the system functions. Once you understand the funding structure, then you can get a better understanding of the contracts and its limits, and what contract language can we enforce? Versus just focusing on the workplace and the work environment.

That's also the importance of issue organizing. So you would organize around payments. Making sure that providers are getting paid based on the maximum reimbursement rates for the approved hours for care, making sure that providers understand that they can get an additional hourly rate after 52.5 hours. That was something that was written in the regulation for years, but it wasn't until a provider brought it to the union's attention [that it was enforced]. And then the agency would say, “No, that's incorrect.” But providers went to the Department of Education and the Department of Education said, actually, yes. They need to get paid an additional hourly rate. That's when we started spreading that information and providers realized that, hey, being part of the union, they're actually getting benefits.

Right now, we're asking our legislators to reach out to the pro tem for senators or for the speaker in the house, to make sure that they suspend the family fee, so this is another aspect of the question you had asked earlier, of how is building a union improving working families?

 

What was it like to organize this campaign with three different locals? What were the challenges involved? How did you overcome them? How did you build solidarity across so many different partners?

That’s what makes this campaign so rewarding. I hear so many stories about unions competing for representation and it's a very destructive approach when you're competing to represent the same workforce. When we have three organizations that are jointly representing that means that we have triple resources available. [Local] 521, representing the state workers and county workers, they have so much more funding and resources available. Local 99 is an education workers union and has been involved in electing champions for working families. UDW led the fight in regards to direct simultaneous communication. Before, the agencies would communicate to the parents that they were terminated or they had a change of approved hours for care, but the parents would not notify the provider that there was this change in their certified hours of care. And the provider would continue providing the same care, and at the end of the month they would realize that they didn't get paid, but they also find out that they can't dispute this payment because it's contractual. So UDW led the fight to make sure that providers received simultaneous notification of any changes. That's been the biggest [benefit] of having three different organizations working: we can have different [groups] fighting different battles, but, at the same time, fighting the same battle.

 

97 percent of workers voted in favor of the union. Can you talk about the work to build such a strong majority?

My strategy is always through meetings because I'm just one person, and I cannot truly capture what it means to be part of the union. It is when workers see each other and share space that triggers an awareness of a common interest and cements networks of solidarity. Family childcare providers, they're isolated in their homes. They don't have that camaraderie of coworkers because they're business owners at the same time. It's through organized team meetings where providers realize that their challenges are not isolated; a lot of providers are dealing with the same delayed payments, inconsistent payments, unpaid vacations. With this pandemic, we moved to Zoom meetings and providers really appreciated that because they're still sharing their experiences and how they deal with COVID-19, parents, and best business practices. 

For GOTV, providers already had a practice of making calls to fellow providers to invite them to a meeting or share why they signed up as a union member. Throughout the years, providers had the opportunity to participate in lobby visits and input meetings with the Department of Education or Licensing to witness first hand the union difference. During the election, providers signed up to be captains to call a list of providers to ensure they knew how to complete their union ballot. We had Zoom voting parties. Staff could not be involved, but our leaders hosted the meetings. 

 

What are your long-term hopes and aspirations?

Providers always say that they wish to have retirement planning because they work such long hours. Sometimes, they have overnight children, so they're always working. Some of them are open 24/7, and especially in the inner-city communities that have a lot of graveyard shift parents, they have to be 24/7. So providers just want to see the possibility of being able to retire and not have to worry about how to pay their bills and get by.

Another thing is healthcare. Right now, providers want 30 days vacation, just because they've been working for so long with no vacation, and because the Department of Health mandated quarantine closures. Providers also want to improve the USDA food program, have access to the farm-to-table produce that schools have access to but childcare providers don't, even though they are basically schools at their homes. Providers would want to see funding and the support to be able to get their teaching credentials. 

 

When the pandemic struck, it changed your organizing to virtual outreach. Could you talk a little bit more about what that might look like going forward? You've won recognition for the union. You're engaged in these political fights. How is the shift to digital affecting how you're planning strategically in the long term?

The biggest challenge is in terms of escalation. We are strategizing and figuring out what escalation looks like as we're moving in our contract bargaining negotiations. We've done caravans, where we drove around [Assembly] Speaker [Anthony] Rendon's office, and that was a big success. We had so many cars that we couldn't even move. [But] I didn't see Speaker Rendon there. He's probably at home isolating. So the escalation part is very challenging. Figuring out how we can show unity of force that is really present in your face instead of just social media. 

We are doing Zoom lobbying visits, which is better, because providers don't have to pay for assistants to travel, and it's less of a time commitment. Providers who would say, "I can't leave my facility," are now actually having the opportunity to lobby and learn what that experience is about. The biggest challenge is escalation When these lobby visits are not working, when the petitions are not working. That's the biggest challenge that we're still trying to figure out.

 

Obviously, each member has a different comfort level with technology. Some folks have never really learned about Zoom. Could you talk about how you engage folks who have a different comfort level or familiarity with technology to cross the digital divide?

That is the big challenge. Luckily, Zoom allows members to call in, and I send the call-in information in my meeting reminders. For the lobby visits, we always do prep before the actual lobby day. One individually, so that I can make sure they have the app downloaded and that they know how to use the features, like the mute and the video. Making sure that their cameras are on.

We do the registration links for Zoom, and that's our new sign-in sheet, but, at the same time, anyone can register. I always take screenshots of the participants so that I can know who participated, who was not a member, who needs to follow up. What I want to keep doing moving forward is to send the registration link the day of so that only those that are actually going to join are registered, and then that gives me a smaller registration list to screen for membership follow-ups.

Providers do want workshops on technology, but I think it's difficult to do a technology workshop digitally or over the internet. It's not the same when these providers meet in person.

 

Is there anything else that you want to share about the campaign?

I'm at a point in the campaign and in my work where providers call me to request the meetings, and I love that. That I don't have to ask people. It shows that they see the benefit of meeting, so they're like, "I want to have a meeting. Can we have a meeting in regards to payments? I'm having a lot of providers reach out to me about what it means to be part of the union now. Can we have an orientation?" I think that really shows their leadership and their ownership over the union.

 

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