Teachers at three of Chicago’s community-based Head Start programs have voted to unionize this year with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). More union elections could be on the way in coming months.

In May, teachers at Ada S. McKinley Community Services became the latest to join the move that began in September 2011 with Marcy Newberry Association, where workers voted 35 to 12  to join SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, which represents child care employees.  

In April, Centers for New Horizons workers voted 37 to 21 for union representation, according to National Labor Relations Board documents.

None of the agencies have reached agreements with workers yet, says Brynn Seibert, director of the Child Care and Early Learning division of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana. She declined to comment on managers’ response to the union, but reports on the union’s website indicate some push-back at Ada S. McKinley.

The unionization drive comes amid continued uncertainty about state funding for child care and also follows years of efforts to increase the educational qualifications held by child care providers and preschool teachers.

A voice in decisions

According to the SEIU website, shortages of supplies like diapers and milk motivated the unionization drive at Centers for New Horizons.  

Denetia Daniels, a teacher assistant in an Early Head Start and child care room at Ada S. McKinley, says she wanted a union “to have a voice for the children and the parents.”

Of specific concern, she says, is that under state law parents may be disqualified for the child care program if they stop working or attending school. She thinks the child care center should do more to refer parents to services and job hunting assistance “so it can be easier and less stressful for families who come to the center.”

Daniels adds that she hopes a union can help negotiate some scheduling flexibility, so staff members can attend college classes. She also says it will help workers advocate for increased child care and Head Start funding.

Currently, Daniels earns $10.94 an hour, and notes that she has received just a 25-cents-an-hour raise in her three years of working at Ada S. McKinley.

Low pay is considered a factor in high turnover in the early childhood workforce. Seibert argues that unionization can contribute to a “stable and well-compensated child care workforce,” and improve child care quality.

Daniels, for her part, says she thinks there are more unions coming at the community agencies that administer Chicago’s Head Start programs. Teachers are not required to have bachelor’s degrees, but often spend 8 or more hours a day in the classroom and earn far less than Chicago Teachers Union members, who provide the same Head Start classes in CPS school buildings.

The unions also include teacher assistants, like Daniels, and other employees.

Seibert says Head Start workers in other unions around the country have been organizing for years, and have also advocated for increased funding.

“When workers here in Chicago are organizing, they are part of a movement of Head Start workers across the country that is growing,” Seibert says.

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