Unclear policies, workplace discrimination and lack of benefits have fueled Portland-based child care workers to unionize. Staff at Growing Seeds Learning Community, Fruit & Flower Child Care Center and Wild Lilac Child Development Community have successfully unionized within the last year. Workers at Joyful Noise Child Development Centers began their process a few months ago. The four unions are all represented by ILWU Local 5. We hear from union organizers Nat Glitsch with Growing Seeds, Em Holland with Wild Lilac and Amanda Nance with Joyful Noise.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Over the last few years, we have had many conversations about the challenges parents are facing in finding stable childcare and preschool, as well as the challenges for people who run these centers. We’re going to start today with a related issue: unionizing efforts among people who work in early childhood education in Portland. Staff at Growing Seeds, Fruit and Flower, and Wild Lilac have all successfully unionized within the last few years. Workers at Joyful Noise began their process just a few months ago.
Broadly, these teachers have come together because of complaints about substandard wages and benefits, unsafe working conditions, or workplace discrimination. For more on what’s behind these efforts I am joined by three organizers. Amanda Nance is a union organizer for Joyful Childcare Workers Union. Nat Glitsch is an organizer for the Growing Seeds Workers Union. And Em Holland is a bargaining team member for Wild Lilac Union. Welcome to all three of you.
Em Holland: Thanks.
Amanda Nance: Thank you.
Miller: Nat Glitsch first, it’s easy to focus on the last just two plus years of the pandemic as a time of incredible stress for people who do your jobs. But at Growing Seeds, the effort to unionize preceded the pandemic. What were the issues when you and coworkers started?
Nat Glitsch: Yeah, that’s true. Some of the big issues that we were dealing with were the things you’ve already mentioned: wages in the field, a lot of aspects of the working conditions that we largely didn’t have a say in because of not having an an organized workplace with collective bargaining rights [which] unions bring, and like you mentioned, discrimination issues that come from unfair discipline practices that workers and teachers usually don’t have a say in either. And those were some of those were some of the biggest things that we wanted to be able to change.
Miller: What were some of the discrimination issues that you’re talking about?
Glitsch: I think even with bosses who really care about workers sometimes when there’s a lack of transparency the things that kind of happened behind closed doors can be really questionable. We were seeing discipline, things like attendance plans where workers of color who would be late sometimes would be on these attendance plans with probationary periods with lowered wages. And sometimes white teachers were sometimes seeing better treatment, like “oh I hope you’re feeling better, you were late or need to leave early.” Things that really felt shocking from a teacher perspective, but generally smaller things, things there wasn’t any accountability for to keep it more equitable.
Miller: Amanda Nance, what about you? When did you personally first start getting interested in forming and being a part of a union?
Nance: So I was a little late to the process, but the minute it was brought up I was like “I am on board, let’s make this happen” for a lot of the reasons that Nat has already mentioned, that you mentioned. It came on the heels of our building closing and us having to choose to use our PTO or be unpaid while parents were still paying their tuition for those days as if we were open.
Miller: Parents were paying to send their kids there, but nobody could be there because of the pandemic, but you weren’t getting paid for those days?
Nance: Yeah. That just happened in early 2022 that we had building and room closures that meant either that one classroom couldn’t come, or our entire center closed down. And when that was the case, we were told that we would not be paid unless we used our PTO, even though parents were still paying.
Miller: So what kinds of conversations were employees having as a result of that?
Nance: There was a lot of frustration, particularly there were some new hires who didn’t have PTO and are new to the job, and now a couple of weeks in, they’re missing out on an entire paycheck or half a paycheck, which is really distressing. When we brought it up to management, we were told that that’s Alice’s decision, and no one has any room to say anything about that.
Miller: Is it fair to say that that situation was one of the big reasons that you and others sought to unionize?
Nance: Absolutely, yes. That, and as I was saying, the inequity in discipline based on how much your director knew you and liked you.
Miller: And Em Holland, what about you? As I noted, you’re a bargaining team member now for a Wild Lilac Union. What were the issues that prompted the unionizing effort at your center?
Holland: This is something that’s kind of been ongoing for us for the last several years. Since I started here three years ago, my coworkers and I have been talking amongst each other about unionizing and there was always this “we have to do it, we have to do it”, but there was never that big push to actually start the organizing process. And COVID was definitely that push. We furloughed for about six months, and then we opened up as an emergency care center. And just within that time of reopening up, we’ve lost over half of our staff members. We are on our fourth executive director currently, so we lost three directors during that time. And there was just so much change that was really unsettling. We had a lack of communication, and we just really felt like we were floating, didn’t really know what was going on. So that was the big push for us where we had the support, we won our union vote by 83%, the staff was very passionate, and we started.
Miller: Did the kind of dislocation and disruption that maybe made unionizing more desirable among staff, did it also make it harder to actually happen? You just noted that you had great support for this among employees, but I’m wondering how you organize when people’s lives are so disrupted?
Holland: It’s definitely been difficult. Our current bargaining team is not the same people that we started with, so things have changed since we started. We officially announced our union in October of 2021.
We’re lucky we work with really passionate people, and we’re one of the few non-privatized preschools, and I think that really made it a bit easier for us. We’re a nonprofit. Right after we unionized, we got a new executive director, and teachers were actually invited to those interviews, so we were able to be with the candidates and specifically ask them “we recently unionized, how do you feel about unions? How do you feel about working with the union to create our contract?” Our current executive director was very excited about that. So we have this different experience, where I know other schools are having a more difficult time. For us, it’s been a really positive and uplifting experience.
Miller: Nat Glitsch, you did something for the Growing Seed Workers Union before you had unionized, but after you’d gone public with your desire to seek collective bargaining: you rented out a pizza place and invited parents and their kids, the customers of the center. You said “come here, listen to some kids’ music and eat some pizza.” What was the idea behind that event?
Glitsch: Yeah, that is such a pleasant memory. It happened right before the pandemic shutdown.
For the year that we were organizing before officially announcing the desire to unionize and have an election, for that year we were learning so much about unions, and also realizing that something unique to our field is the kind of buy-in that the families have. Families are such intense stakeholders. In every field the clients or customers look different. But it was very clear to us that families were big stakeholders, and would really have big sway in the things that were happening in our workplace. We wanted to make sure that our unionizing effort didn’t scare families, and that it could be something that could be seen as positive for everyone involved. And also, we just love the kids so much and value our relationships with the families. So it was this super fun opportunity to get people together outside of work hours, answer whatever questions families might have, address concerns they might have, tend to our relationships that we have with the families and kids. We have awesome photobooth pictures from that experience and stuff like that. We just made sure to always prioritize families, even when the pandemic shutdown did happen.
Miller: It’s interesting the relationship you’re talking about there, because I was just imagining two high profile unionizing efforts nationwide that have been successful in different ways: Amazon in Staten Island, and Starbucks all across the country. It’s hard to imagine Amazon warehouse workers inviting customers to meet with them in the way that you did, because there’s just not the same kind of relationship.
I imagine for you that this was also a question of strategy right? A way to build leverage. If parents were in favor of your efforts that would make it harder for ownership to go against you. Was that explicitly part of your thinking?
Glitsch: Absolutely. Part of the power structure and imbalance that we had in the workplace, was that we’re the workforce, the families are the ones paying this pretty high tuition, and so if a teacher asks for something of the administration versus a parent asks for something, one of them is where the money is coming from, the other one is the laborers. The labor is coming from the teachers. But money talks. So it was always clear to us that parents had the ability to really advocate for us, or really at times kind of throw us under the bus a little bit.
Miller: You felt both of those?
Glitsch: Yeah! Their kids are so important to them and their kids learning environment is so important to them, and so we knew that they had a lot of power to hold us accountable, and we wanted to make sure that we were really strategically having having them on our side, but also from like a heart centered place, making sure they knew that we had their kids and their family’s best interest in mind as well.
Miller: Amanda Nance, your union is still in the works right now. Where are you in the voting process?
Nance: We have a voting date, they’ll mail out ballots to us on June 15th and we have to have those back in by July 6th, and that July 6th date is the counting date and we’ll know then whether we’re unionized or not.
Miller: You were just hearing Nat’s discussion, pre-pandemic, about meeting with parents. Are you having conversations with parents as well?
Nance: Yes, we absolutely are. Because we are allowed and maybe even expected to discuss our outside goings on with families, we recognized that it was safe to also then talk about union stuff with our families. And so we have been from the minute that we told our directors that we were unionizing, we then told parents and we passed out letters to them. Just on Saturday, we had a rally in the park, and families came to that which was very, very fun. It was rainy and they came out anyway, which was exciting.
And then as parents have expressed, generally, their excitement about us unionizing, we also have parents who have volunteered their time and efforts towards the unionization effort, as far as sending out emails, talking with other families. One of my parents wrote a letter to be read at the rally to talk about why that was important. So our families have been getting a lot of information from teachers.
Miller: Em Holland, is work for you and your coworkers different now in meaningful ways since you unionized in October? I know that negotiations are ongoing, but have there already been changes simply because of the existence of your union?
Holland: Yes, definitely. We’re in the negotiation process, and we already have a numerous amount of tentative agreements. We’re hoping actually that we can have our first contract before the start of the next school year. One of the biggest changes we’ve seen, that’s already been implemented, is on wages. We worked with the executive director to put out a wage proposal that would greatly increase wages for every single employee by a good amount, by like $3. So now we are one of the preschools who is at the higher end of starting wages, and it’s actually drawn more people to apply to work at our school.
Miller: Have you seen less turnover as a result?
Holland: That is always the question, because early childhood is notorious for high turnover rates, even pre-pandemic. So that was another huge reason and push for us to unionize. We want to make this a working environment that people will thrive in, that people will feel supported in, and will want to stay. I think we’re slowly getting there. But it’s the nature of the field, I feel like there’s always going to be turnover to a certain degree.
Miller: Nat Glitsch, what about you? What have negotiations actually been like?
Glitsch: Yeah, negotiations have been a really powerful process, but also a really disappointing and frustrating process. It’s been so heartening to see the Wild Lilac negotiations that Em was just mentioning, because they are just going so differently than how ours have gone.
Our employer really seems to have taken a different approach from the beginning, to see this as a really personal attack that needs to be defeated. So what we’ve seen is our bargaining teams, throughout this whole time, have worked so hard to make proposals that they feel are so reasonable and so thoughtful. And every single proposal has been fought and whittled down every step of the way. And we have continued. But it is just really clear that management of these preschool businesses have a choice to see workers organizing as a collaborator, as their staff having this passionate buy-in of wanting to share our voices and wanting to spend countless volunteer hours doing that. Or they can see us as rowdy people trying to just cause a problem and complain really loudly.
It’s been a really frustrating process. But we’ve had a lot of wins regardless, and we continue to have wins and continue to use bargaining as a really positive force to change our conditions.
Miller: Amanda Nance, I noted Starbucks and Amazon as two very high profile companies where workers in some of their locations have seen unionizing wins over the last year and a half. What’s gone through your mind as you’ve seen those very different jobs, but similar desires come together to get more power as workers?
Nance: It’s been very heartening. I think the day that we announced that we were going to unionize was the day after our local Starbucks had won their vote. So that was really exciting to watch. It makes us really hopeful that we can come together, because we are spread across four centers, and it makes us feel a little disjointed. But watching four separate Starbucks come together and win their vote is really exciting.
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