Seattle’s universal preschool plans hit union meeting snag
Day-care providers who get city money were surprised by a proposal by Mayor Mike McGinn to compel them to sign agreements with unions. McGinn says it’s to improve teacher quality and prevent disruptions because of strikes, but day-care operators question whether the move is legal.
Seattle Times staff reporter
In late September, Mayor Mike McGinn announced his support for universal preschool in Seattle and a goal of stabilizing the child-care workforce to improve teacher quality and prevent disruption of services to young children and their families.
Since then, city directives have told child-care providers who contract with the city that they must meet with union representatives by Dec. 1 or lose city funding.
The city isn’t requiring day-care workers to join a union, but it is requiring providers to sign a “teacher stabilization agreement” with a union that lays out the framework for organizing the workplace and ensures that day-care centers stay open in the event of a strike or other labor action.
Child-care providers say they had no advance notice of the change in contracting provisions. They also note there was no policy discussion with Seattle Public Schools, where many providers are located, nor with the City Council over the long-term question of how best to raise teacher quality, an important goal if the city adopts universal preschool.
“This is an attempt by the city to provide unions access to child-care workers so they can unionize. It feels like we’re being strong-armed,” said Bob Gilbertson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Seattle, which employs about 50 teachers in the city at before- and after-school programs and three preschools. The YMCA centers are not unionized, he said.
Gilbertson also questioned whether the city directive is legal.
He noted that, typically, 30 percent of employees must petition before they can hold a vote for union representation.
The directive came in the midst of a hard-fought re-election campaign, which McGinn lost to state Sen. Ed Murray.
Both SEIU 925 and the American Federation of Teachers (ATF) Washington, which represent child-care workers in Seattle and the state, endorsed McGinn.
The two unions have joined together under the name Kids First to contact providers and negotiate the stabilization agreements.
“It immediately struck me that SEIU’s involvement in this and its endorsement of McGinn wasn’t a coincidence,” said Dallas Artz, program director for the Latona School Associates, a day-care program at John Stanford International School in Wallingford.
A spokesman for McGinn said there wasn’t any political motivation to the city’s request that day-care providers sign agreements with the union.
“We included the provision because it is a good tool to help improve early learning for our children, not for any electoral reasons,” Robert Cruickshank said.
Dorothy Gibson, organizing director for AFT, also said there was no connection between the city directive and the union endorsement. She said, “Early educators have been trying to organize for a long time. They want to have a stronger voice in their profession.”
Brooke Lather, early-learning policy specialist for SEIU 925, said the stabilization agreement requires only that the union meet with the day-care provider and talk about what’s involved in organizing the workforce.
It doesn’t require a union representative to come to a day-care center, nor is there any requirement that anyone join a union, she said.
Workers retain their right to vote for representation. “Every individual gets to decide for themselves,” Lather said.
SEIU 925 donated about $7,000 and AFT Washington $10,000 to independent expenditure committees for McGinn.
The AFT contribution was made Oct. 10 but not reported by the political committee to the state until Nov. 5, election day. It wasn’t reported to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission until Nov. 13.
Both AFT contributions should have been reported within five days, under public disclosure laws.
McGinn announced his support for universal preschool at a Sept. 20 news conference that included child advocates and unionized day-care workers. An accompanying news release said the city would add a teacher-stabilization provision to all city contracts with early-learning and child-care providers.
Catherine Lester, interim director of the city Human Services Department, notified providers Oct. 16 that a teacher-stabilization agreement had to be in place by Dec. 1.
Day-care providers said many of them didn’t learn about the new requirement until they received the city letter, followed the next day by a letter from the SEIU and AFT under the letterhead Kids First.
Susan Brown, president and CEO of Kids Co., which provides child care at nine Seattle schools, said the Seattle school district requires providers to have a vendor service agreement with the city or lose their school lease. That agreement now requires a meeting with the union.
“We don’t have a choice,” Brown said.
Experienced day-care teachers say unionizing the workforce can lead to less turnover and a more qualified staff.
Laura Chandler, a preschool teacher and trainer for Small Faces, a day-care center for about 165 kids at the former Crown Hill School in North Ballard, said she is constantly training new staff because of high turnover.
Chandler said she supported the unions’ efforts to reach more day-care providers because it could mean increased pay and benefits for teachers.
“What I know about stabilization is we don’t have it.”
Even with teachers at Small Faces represented by SEIU and step increases in pay, she said, beginning teachers make $9.50 to $12 an hour. One of her assistants left because she could make more money as a Starbucks barista, Chandler said.
Councilmember Tim Burgess, chairman of the Finance Committee, said he learned about the stabilization-agreement provision days before the election. “We’ve asked the law department what it means and is it legal,” he said.
In August, Burgess proposed that the city start planning for universal preschool. Money for that planning will be included in the 2014 budget. Burgess said research shows that for children to benefit from early learning, the quality of the programs has to be high.
“The importance of teachers and their compensation can’t be overemphasized. We’ve got to get it right,” Burgess said. But he added, “The mayor’s proposal caught us by surprise. We’re playing catch up.”
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes
Information in this article, originally published Nov. 14, 2013, was clarified Nov. 15, 2013. A previous version of this story said a union representative could go into a workplace if 30 percent of employees requested it. In fact, union rules to not require a union representative to visit the workplace.