Meet The Organizers Fighting For Childcare Providers Who Are Struggling To Get By
In honor of Labor Day, mitú is running a short series highlighting childcare providers in California and those affected by struggles with childcare. One in three providers in California are Latina. They and others are fighting for a fairer wage, collective bargaining within the government and many other issues.
It’s a cool Friday evening at a Ramona Duran’s house in Long Beach, California, where in her back room she runs Ramona’s Daycare. The daycare serves 14 children from the community, with Duran and her assistant taking on the task of teaching them the vital basics, like their ABC’s, 123’s and colors, as well as important lessons in caring, socializing and understanding the world. Duran’s daycare is more than just a waiting room for children who need a place to stay until their parents can pick them up after work. She takes pride in the special bond she has with the children and parents that she provides childcare.
“The beautiful part is that you receive all the love from the children, the love of the parents,” she says. “They’re grateful to you. You see that they love you.”
Love is what pushes providers to do the work they do and to continue working within a system that’s unreasonably complicated and devalues their work. Childcare providers struggle to get by on less than minimum wage, working upwards of 75 hours a week for as low as $2 an hour. Read our first installment in this series to learn more about childcare provider’s wage struggles.
Love, unfortunately, doesn’t pay the $500 in food many pay per week to feed the children in their care. Love doesn’t cover the rent and high utility bills, the diapers and baby wipes or the educational toys their kids learn and play with. It doesn’t provide them savings for retirement, health insurance or worker’s compensation if they get hurt. And love doesn’t ensure they’re paid on time or even at all.
A group of 20 or so women have gathered at Ramona’s house to discuss these struggles and many others they face as childcare providers. Many have brought their children and grandchildren with them, unable to find childcare for themselves to attend this meeting.
The women are all members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), working together and supporting one another in their fight to sustain themselves and their families. And it is a fight.
At the head of this meeting is Maria Duque, a 26-year-old organizer for SEIU Local 99. In her pink jeans and purple SEIU t-shirt, Duque stands before the women, fielding their questions, providing information and maintaining order when the providers go off on an agency, the lack of pay or one of the other problems they’re facing.
“As a union, we’re here to help each other, ask questions and share what we learn,” she tells them.
Duque, along with Jovanna Hernandez, 26, and Marianna Arrellano-Renteria, 48, are all organizers with SEIU Local 99, working on the childcare providers campaign to help providers win collective bargaining rights with the state that would enable them to negotiate a living wage, access trainings that would provide better early care and education and to fight for greater access to affordable childcare for families. Sitting inside their LA headquarters, an old Victorian house covered in posters from actions and marches they’ve led, the organizers discuss their work and the women they fight for.
Duque is originally from Ecuador. She came to the U.S. with her family as an undocumented immigrant when she was five. She didn’t realize she was undocumented until she was seven. Her father set up plans of action for Duque in case he and his wife were deported. Years later, Duque’s brother was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“When I saw what happened to my brother, it put things in perspective of how difficult it is to live in this country as an undocumented person,” she says. “That was around the time I started organizing, because I understood that it’s the only way that you can change things and fight towards something better.”
Hernandez was born and raised in East Los Angeles to undocumented parents. Her two older sisters are DACA recipients. Seeing her sisters struggle in the shadows of their citizenship status while she freely could pursue a college education and scholarships made Hernandez realize her privileges. She’s been organizing since high school, charged by the proposed 2006 bill H.R. 4437, which attempted to raise penalties for illegal immigration and classify undocumented immigrants and anyone who helped them enter or remain in the US as felons. Her mother also served as a community representative at Hernandez’s school, advocating for students and parents and leading meetings.
“This all led me to be responsible with my privileges,” she says.
Hernandez now works for the same union that represented her mother; the union that won her mother death benefits. Those benefits allowed Hernandez and her sisters to get a college education after her mother died on the job. She now works to ensure childcare providers and their families can get the benefits that will protect them and their families.
Arrellano-Renteria has been on the childcare providers campaign the longest, since 2010. Her parents were both active union members. She became an organizer while working at a cemetery back in 1999, after seeing the poor treatment and inhumane conditions the Latino workers endured on the job and the degradation they received from management. One of those workers would become her husband.
“I realized someone had to step up,” she says. “So I started funneling information to the workers, assisting them and translating stuff for them.”
As Arrellano-Renteria puts it, she is happiest when she’s helping others.
The meetings they host don’t only serve to inform the providers. They also give them a space to spend time with one another. There they can see they’re not alone in their struggles.
“It’s a very lonely industry. You’re working in your own home space. Even though they were kind of all over the place, it was beautiful,” recalls Duque of the meeting at Duran’s home. “They hadn’t seen each other for a while and were finally engaging and talking about problems they’re having with the agencies. I think one of the big components of the house meetings is the chance to connect with each other.”
Leading meetings is no easy feat, but organizers have their way of ensuring everyone is heard and walks away empowered in the knowledge they receive. It’s how they can find strength in numbers, and push each other to fight for their collective progress.
“We’re here working for these women,” says Hernandez. “So the meetings that take place are because providers thought information was important to provide to other women.”
The work of an organizer is slow. It’s pushing at a wall that doesn’t want to budge in the hopes that you can move it even an inch, because that inch can mean a better life and societal progress for the marginalized and disenfranchised.
The work is wrought with disappointments, and also victories that keep them pushing forward. Organizers and providers have worked hard to get bills passed the House of Representatives and Senate. But once their bills make it to the governor’s desk, they’re vetoed almost immediately. Then providers and organizers start all over, vowing to continue until they win.
They saw this just last year with the veto of Senate Bill 548, which would inform providers about training opportunities and help them form and join provider organizations to share their common concerns and advocate for improvements to the state-funded child care system, according to the bill.
“Even with all these obstacles, they’re resilient,” says Duque. “I remember the day after the veto, the providers and union leaders were all clearly affected, but they’re still resilient. They’re still here. There’s that understanding that you’ve still got to fight.”
“That’s why they’re so inspiring. There’s so many problems. Nobody cares about you. Nobody gives funding to you,” says Hernandez. “Yet this work is important. Just because nobody gives more funding or fixes these problems, doesn’t mean that the problems don’t exist. And these providers think, ‘Well, we’ve got to keep moving forward even when we see a bunch of doors shut all the time. We’ll find a window open.’”
There’s no question for the organizers about the need for this work to be done. As Hernandez puts it, the injustices and broken system don’t disappear if they stop organizing. Someone has to do this work, and for her, it’s all she’s ever known. In effect, childcare providers and organizers do their work for the same reasons: because they love those they work with and understand that they provide an important service that benefits children, parents and communities that struggle with poverty and low resources.
“That’s our job, our conversations: to make them feel empowered,” says Hernandez. “To make them realize they have power to change things so they speak up and take action.”
As Arrellano-Renteria puts it, the devaluing of the childcare provider’s work often becomes internalized.
“It isn’t until recently through all the work that we’ve been doing that providers themselves are starting to take notice and say ‘I’m not a babysitter. I just never thought about it,’” she says. “Or ‘I am an educator.’ Perpetuating the same stereotypes that the general public would have had for them is part of the problem. Now all providers are hip to that.”
Early education is proven to be a vital part of a child’s development, often setting their path for success in education and their later careers. Education is instrumental in breaking the cycle of poverty in communities of color and low-income communities. There are plenty of organizations and campaigns that champion early education, like Head Start and First 5. However, childcare providers are often forgotten in the discussion of early education, despite serving as early educators to countless children. Their work can mean the success of a little person who was born into the world already at a disadvantage. As Hernandez puts it, “If you fix education, you can fix poverty.”
“Early education is so important. There’s a reason why at higher education institutions, the demographic makeup looks a specific way,” she adds. “And that’s because not everyone has the same opportunities in early education. I think once they’ve entered a school, it’s already too late. They need to know their colors, their numbers, their letters, and childcare providers teach this to the children.”
And so organizers fight to protect them and ensure they can do their work, sustain themselves and be present in the creation of the legislature that will affect their lives and the lives of the children and parents. Especially considering their selflessness.
“One of the providers I spoke to yesterday was telling me how she can’t charge a private family what the agency is paying her,” says Duque. “She says ‘Whatever the mom can pay, with that we can make it work.’ They’re selfless. They do the work they do because not only do they love it, but because they’re there for the children.”
“That’s why I’m out there assisting providers to really focus on themselves and what they do as educators,” adds Arrellano-Renteria. “Because one provider with a house of 14 kids, they’re the ones that are superheroes going out and changing lives. If I can inspire the provider, the provider is going to change the world.”
The organizers have their eyes set on 2018, when the California gubernatorial seat and other important seats in the different houses of government will be open for midterm elections. They plan on backing candidates that will fight for providers and give them that collective bargaining power. And while they’ve seen disappointment, the organizers believe it can happen.
“This campaign is all about faith,” says Hernandez. “Reason doesn’t get us anywhere. Clearly, families are in need, children are in need. Reason would give us funding, but this all about ‘do you value this work?'”