More than a year and a half after voting to unionize, YMCA child care workers in Chicago have yet to agree on a contract with the large, not-for-profit organization.

Workers and management went back to the bargaining table two weeks ago, but have not yet reached an agreement on issues such as pay increases or reduced health insurance costs.

Now, organizers say they are seriously considering a strike vote, which could temporarily cripple early childhood programs at the 12 YMCA of Metro Chicago sites, with about 160 workers who joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in November 2012.

“The pay is really, really low,” said Aurora Cavazos, who holds a master’s degree in early childhood education yet makes just $15 per hour as an Early Head Start teacher at the North Lawndale YMCA. “Some of the people who work there have gotten degrees and have gone elsewhere. I believe children need quality education, but they’re not paying me quality wages.”

YMCA spokeswoman Sherrie Medina said she couldn’t comment publicly on ongoing union negotiations.

“We’ve exchanged proposals, and have had thoughtful and energetic conversations,” she said. “We respect the collective bargaining process and can’t comment further.”

SEIU organizers say they empathize with smaller community agencies that administer Chicago’s Head Start and other early childhood programs, and whose budgets rely mostly on government funds. Instead of taking an antagonistic approach with management, workers at three other unionized sites in Chicago advocate for increased government resources alongside their bosses.

But it’s another story with the YMCA of Metro Chicago, which in 2012 reported annual revenues of more than $100 million plus some $276 million in assets, according to public records. There, workers have taken a more aggressive tone in their campaign for higher wages and lower health care costs.  SEIU organizers said workers want the YMCA to supplement Head Start and preschool workers’ pay with funding from donations to the YMCA and gym membership fees.

Low wages are a long-standing problem for Illinois’ childcare workers, even as the educational requirements for the job have steadily increased in recent years. A 2013 salary and staffing survey prepared on behalf of the Illinois Department of Human Services found that the median hourly wage for Chicago’s early child care teachers was $14.27; that is, just under $30,000 per year. Assistant teachers, on average, make just $10 per hour.

Other unionized child care workers

Workers at the other three unionized Chicago child care sites — Ada S. McKinley Community Services, Centers for New Horizons, and Mary Crane Center – do not have contracts either. A fourth unionized child care site, Marcy Newberry Association, closed last year.

SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana also represents some 28,000 home-based workers who provide care to children from needy families through the state’s Child Care Assistance Program. In exchange for dues, SEIU represents these workers in negotiations with the State of Illinois.

It’s unclear whether that representation would be affected by this month’s Supreme Court decision that ended mandatory union dues for Illinois’ home-based health care workers who are also paid by the state. The decision could open the door to challenges to union requirements for other categories of home-based workers, including those in child care. No such challenges have been filed.

Illinois is one of 14 states where home-based child care workers that receive state funding have the right to unionize, according to a recent study by the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center.

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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