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Early educator union sought

Paul Toner said he and other union organizers were surprised by the opposition from some child-care centers. Paul Toner said he and other union organizers were surprised by the opposition from some child-care centers.
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / October 10, 2011

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Massachusetts teacher unions are attempting to enroll more than 10,000 early childhood education workers in the private and nonprofit sectors, a move that could boost their woefully low pay but critics say could also drive up tuition rates.

A centerpiece of the effort by the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts is legislation that would authorize the creation of a statewide union specifically for early childhood educators.

Under the legislation, the “Massachusetts Early Childhood Educators Union’’ would negotiate directly with the state Department of Early Education and Care - rather than with individual preschool and day-care centers - over salaries, benefits, and training, resulting in one contract. The bill is sponsored by more than two dozen House members.

Employees at more than 1,000 childhood centers that have state-funded contracts or receive state subsidies would be eligible to join the union. In addition to those teachers, the new union would also represent custodians, van drivers, and program directors.

“We think [the union] will give them a larger voice in education policy and at individual centers,’’ said Thomas Gosnell, president of the federation. “The reality is as teachers unionize they become more forceful advocates for resources for their schools.’’

Backers emphasize that their strategy is to have the state cover the additional costs, rather than have families pay it through higher tuition rates.

But the effort has sparked heated opposition from some early childhood education centers and day care providers, such as the YMCA of Greater Boston and the Boys & Girls Clubs Massachusetts Alliance. They argue that, among other things, a union contract would lead to higher negotiated salaries that ultimately might have to be covered by tuition increases - despite organizers’ intentions to the contrary.

“It messes with affordability,’’ said Kevin Washington, president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of Greater Boston. “In the long run, it will affect quality.’’

The union drive has been picking up momentum as the state struggles to address a key element of bolstering the quality of early childhood education: Finding money to pay workers adequately to prevent them from leaving the field.

In a report last year, the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children, a Boston nonprofit, said Massachusetts is facing a compensation crisis, pointing out that most early childhood educators in the private sector make less than $25,000 annually, causing high turnover. The pay is roughly three times less than what unionized teachers make in public schools, according to salary data compiled by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The low pay often represents a delicate balancing act that many private and nonprofit early childhood centers face. As much as they would like to pay their teachers more, often the only way they can accomplish that is through higher tuition rates. Centers are reluctant to raise tuition because they know the finances of many families are stretched thin.

A report in August by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies determined that Massachusetts was among the least affordable states for parents to send their 4-year-olds to child-care centers. The report found that a two-parent family typically paid $12,200, representing 11.8 percent of the state’s median income for two-parent families, the third-highest percentage behind New York and Montana.

Some early education advocates say the state needs to increase funding for early education to solve the problems of low pay for workers and high tuitions paid by families.

“The overarching issue is the fact that we have a system of early education and care in this country and in Massachusetts that is financed largely through high fees for parents and low wages for workers,’’ said Amy O’Leary, campaign director for Early Education for All, an initiative of Strategies for Children. “If we are to realize the positive, cost-effective outcomes for children that research tells us early education provides, then we must invest the public dollars needed to deliver these results.’’

Strategies for Children, a Boston nonprofit, has not taken a position on the unionization effort.

Unionizing early childhood centers is not new territory; state labor laws already give workers the right to start a union.

But organizing workers one center at a time has not proved successful; workers at about 30 centers have formed a union, according to Mass Cares for Kids, a coalition of early childhood centers that oppose unionization.

Teacher union officials said they decided that creating a statewide union that focused primarily on the broad issues of pay, benefits, and training could be more fruitful. Organizing the union is expected to be a huge undertaking, requiring a majority of workers statewide to sign so-called union authorization cards. The legislation would require early childhood centers that receive state money to hand over a list of their employees and contact information.

The teachers unions have launched a grass-roots campaign, holding informational meetings with early education workers and offering weekend job training to help them improve their classroom instruction. Several thousand employees have expressed interest, union officials say.

Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said he and other union organizers were surprised by the opposition from some child-care centers. For years, they said, they have heard operators repeatedly express frustration that they are losing their most talented teachers for better-paying jobs in public schools.

“We are trying to help centers get more money to hold onto their best workers,’’ Toner said. “We want to be allies with them.’’

Toner said keeping talented teachers in the early childhood centers could go a long way toward shoring up the quality of the education there, enabling more children to arrive in kindergarten ready to learn. But many child-care centers say a union is unnecessary to drum up more state funding for early education, arguing that over the last 10 years providers have been able to secure an additional $65 million for state-subsidized child care, most of which they say has been used to pay staff higher salaries.

These centers also fault the legislation for cutting them out of the negotiating process.

“This bill sets a bad precedent,’’ Washington said.

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.