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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, July 14

Gapers Block

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One year and four months ago, on a cold night made worse by freezing rain, I knocked on a door at the 800 block of north Massasoit Avenue in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago's West Side. That knock was the first of thousands, beginning my participation in a period of my life I will always look back on as one of my finest and proudest.

On the other side of that door was a woman who was paid $9.48 a day to look after a child, the daughter of a friend of the family's. The girl's mother worked days and couldn't afford to take her daughter to a center. In order to work, she needed somebody to look after the kid. The childcare provider looked after the girl for as many as 12 hours a day, playing games with her, teaching her to read time, bathing her and feeding her. She played, supervised, with the neighborhood children. She'd be starting kindergarten soon, so the education and routine she received in that home would prepare her for her education. Meanwhile, her mother could work, pay taxes, and otherwise be a productive member of our economy.

The day I knocked on that first door, there were about 37,000 "license-exempt" childcare providers, predominately women, who could look after up to 3 children. These 37,000 license-exempt providers enabled roughly 55,000 parents to go back to work or school. These providers were paid once a month, no taxes withheld. Their checks were often two, three, four months late. Parents had to pay up to 25 percent of their net income as a co-pay to the state subsidy, and often providers never collected the money because they knew the financial situation the parents were in. As a result, in many cases 100 percent of the state subsidy went back into food, clothing and toys for the kids. Which meant people were working for free.

The day I knocked on that first door, none of these providers ever dreamed that it would be possible for them to be called "workers." None of them ever dreamed that they'd be able to bargain for more resources to be allocated to the state childcare system. They were the passed over and forgotten — many of them felt alone because, working at home, they had no workplace where dissatisfaction could foment reform.

Eight years before I knocked on that door, licensed home childcare providers looking after kids who received a state subsidy — there are roughly 12,000, enabling about 40,000 parents to work or go to school — began to organize themselves. They agreed to voluntarily pay dues each month in order to fund an organization to build a movement. Because turnover was so high — among both licensed and exempt, as high as 70 percent a year — it was an uphill struggle. The political climate was hostile and the odds long. But these women stayed strong and determined that if they stuck together and never relented, eventually they would win. Not to mention that under labor law they were considered independent subcontractors, devoid of an employer and therefore unable to bargain collectively for improvements in work conditions.

They used their informal organization as a platform to lobby state politicians for pay raises and, more often, to fight cuts to the program. They successfully lobbied for bureaucratic changes in the childcare system, and they even won a seat on a state Childcare Advisory Board. They tirelessly met with politicians and childcare advocacy groups, they sacrificed their precious time — many spend as much as 16 hours a day with children — to make phone calls to fellow providers, knock on doors, travel down to Springfield or otherwise meticulously build their organizations.

Although the growth was organic, it was not spontaneous. Local 880 of the Service Employees International Union, which as the time represented mainly low-income home healthcare providers, dedicated a portion of its meager resources to aiding the childcare providers in their fight. For years, a small core of passionately dedicated organizers — who I am reluctant to name only out of respect for their privacy — worked very long hours for little pay with the knowledge that if they worked hard enough and maintained their vision, they could help make a difference.

But because of the sheer number of license-exempt providers, there were not the available resources to organize them. So instead, licensed providers continued to grow their organizations, thousands of them voluntarily paying dues and signing union authorization and membership cards. Until February of last year.

That's where I came in. A small group of organizers and I worked to help license-exempt providers realize their strength, too. And once we started, it took off. People with no employer, often making the equivalent of $0.70 an hour to provide a very valuable service to the economy, believed that if they, too, stuck together and fought hard enough, they could effect change on the childcare system in Illinois. It was a joy to see the dedication in people's faces as they steeled themselves for what we at the time thought would be a two or three year fight.

Into the spring and summer months we worked, those of us who had been working on the campaign earlier on assumed greater roles, our staff growing as more and more providers made the decision to organize. They came down to Springfield during the budget fights last year. They put together neighborhood meetings to spread the word. They fliered their churches and made phone calls. They paid voluntary cash dues to fund the effort and to symbolize their dedication. I spent hundreds of hours in their homes, meeting their families, their neighbors, their friends. Slowly it began to dawn on me that these men and women were a dear part of my life, and that by knocking on their door that first time, I was making a promise to them — and they to each other — that was sacred.

Working together, we were helping to redefine what "work" was, and what we as a society valued. We were promising each other that we wouldn't flinch until we had made a serious step towards changing how people perceived work. It isn't just mine workers or automobile assembly line techs or truckers that need unions. There is other work — yes, "feminine" work — that is just as real and just as valuable, if not more. The people behind those doors I and so many others knocked on knew it instinctively, if not explicitly, that their "womanly" work was what prevented them from achieving a better life for themselves and their families.

Last September, after a successful lobbying effort that allied childcare providers with numerous community and advocacy groups, we were able to open up the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program to license-exempt providers, who had previously been excluded. This strictly federal program provided for a $3.43 per child per day voucher to be used to purchase food. We marked the victory by holding a rally at the Thompson Center downtown — hundreds of providers and children descending on the plaza with blankets, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit cups and juice. We had been denied a permit twice, so we finally made the decision that we'd just have to show up and have a picnic. When the state police let us know we were not welcome, we encouraged them to make scene among all of the adorable little babies and their doting providers, simply enjoying a sunny day and some food.

"We're having a picnic," I said.

"Urm..." The cop said.

By our figuring, when all is said and done, that victory of opening up the food program could bring as much as $45,000,000 of federal money into Illinois' economy.

In 2002, SEIU turned out hundreds of member volunteers to work on Governor Rod Blagojevich's campaign for governor, considered a friend of labor. Other unions poured resources in, too. The calculation turned out to be a good one: Blagojevich has indeed been a friend to the state's organized labor. On February 18th, he signed an executive order (2005-1) granting collective bargaining rights to all home childcare providers receiving a state subsidy. The State of Illinois would be the "employer of record" for the purposes of collective bargaining only.

Any union presenting 10 percent of the unit of workers on union authorization cards would be represented in a mail-ballot union election to be completed within 42 days of the executive order.

On February 19th and 20th, we worked for nearly 20 hours to neatly alphabetize and box the nearly 20,000 cards providers had signed. On the 23rd, we delivered them to the American Arbitration Association, the neutral third party who would administer the election. I'll never forget the feeling as they wheeled the 15 or so boxes out of the office on a handtruck. So many thousands of hours of work wheeled out just like that. It's hard to explain the feeling.

We were certified and placed on the ballot. We began to lay our plans for the election process; we knew ballots would be mailed on the 16th of March, and that all counting had to be completed by 5pm on the 7th of April.

On February 24th, I was running a phone bank on the city's Near West Side, packed with 20 of our organizers, calling providers all over the state to inform them of the election, educate them on the voting process and confirm their votes. Suddenly the organizers were getting a lot of complaints from providers that they had already been called. I checked our software's call tracker to confirm that, in fact, we had called everybody only once.

Somebody else was calling them.

For reasons to mundane and obscure to relate, our liaison at the SEIU State Council and I immediately deduced that it was the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a public sector union. All of a sudden, after a decade of hard work and tens of thousands of hours and innumerable neighborhood meetings and lobbying trips to Springfield, AFSCME had taken an interest in the campaign. They unleashed hundreds of organizers in Chicago and the near environs to reach the 10 percent threshold needed to be certified and included on the ballot. Suddenly, things were much more complicated.

About two weeks later, AFSCME presented their cards. The ballots were changed and the fight was on.

As a reporter for The Nation magazine states, it did indeed get a bit confrontational, as SEIU put nearly 500 organizers on the street and AFSCME brought in more people. Underlining a sharp division in the labor movement, other unions provided organizers and volunteers as well. We often ran into AFSCME in the neighborhoods, at hotel bars, even on people's stoops.

The nitty-gritty details of that fight (although often very amusing, not to be communicated publicly) are not as important as the ultimate result: nearly 30 percent of the providers turned out to vote, an impressive number when one considers the high turnover, the typically low turnout of mail-ballot elections, and the high number of bad addresses in a unit of workers that can be very transitory.

Roughly 83 percent of the workers chose SEIU Local 880 as their union. Childcare providers were now union workers. We had crossed a threshold — no going back. Those tens of thousands of providers, dedicated over the last decade, sacrificing time and resources, had helped change the definition of work forever.

At the ballot count, a very sophisticated operation that took place in a downtown highrise, I accompanied a dozen or so childcare providers, who watched the ballot handlers and counters with the combination of affection and sternness their profession demands. We held our breaths as the ballots were run through computer scanners. The process began around 9am, and was all over by 1pm. And although for us the results were never in doubt, when the arbitrator certified the results, there was a pause, then hoots of jubilation. Tears. Hosannahs and prayers. I thought of the sense of desperation that would occasionally creep over me back last spring, when we sat in the office thumbing through the 300 or so cards we had collected, knowing the task that was ahead of us.

That night, at the victory party we threw at the Teamsters Hall in Teamster City, childcare providers looked further steeled in their purpose to win a better life for themselves and the families they so tirelessly work for, but they also made a promise to home childcare providers all over the country — of which there are well over a million — that this was not just one great victory for the state of Illinois but the beginning of a movement.

Suddenly, that first nervous knock I made on the 800 block of north Massasoit, and the first knocks so many anxious organizers before us had made in neighborhoods all over the city, and the knocks childcare providers made on the doors of their friends and neighbors grew louder and louder, deafening, and by God it rang through my ears all night until I collapsed, exhausted, that night.

It rang out as a clarion call, announcing the birth of just one little piece of justice, born in Chicago.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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