Child care workers rally for better health care, pay

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Aurora Cavazos, of Pilsen, has been in the childcare industry for 17 years. For the last four, she has taught preschool at the North Lawndale YMCA. Yet she still holds down a second job to make ends meet.

“I have two jobs because I’m not being paid enough as a child care worker,” Cavazos said Thursday to a group of about 30 colleagues and allies standing outside of the YMCA of Metro Chicago headquarters.

Child care workers from mostly south and west side YMCA locations gathered outside of the headquarters with electric candles, Christmas cards for CEO Richard Malone and clear demands.

The workers voted to form an SEIU union in November 2012 – following on the heels of child care workers at Ada S. McKinley Community Services, Marcy Newberry Association and Centers for New Horizons. The YMCA workers have spent much of the last year bargaining with management but still have no contract to show for it.

Liz Kropp, an organizer with SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, said the bargaining team started to get the impression over the summer that management wasn’t truly interested in settling a contract. They filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board and started planning public actions to call attention to the fight.

Thursday’s candlelight vigil lasted about half an hour in front of the YMCA of Metro Chicago’s North Dearborn Street headquarters with a few speeches, chants and adapted Christmas carols.

“Jingle Bells, we aren’t well but we’re here anyway. To protect our respect and to demand fair pay, hey! Jingle Bells, we can tell you won’t bargain fair, we demand a better plan and fairly-priced health care.”

Healthcare is the major item on the table for the child care workers. Their premiums top $100 per month for individuals and, according to Cavazos, have been increasing for years without any better care. She spends hours waiting in lines at the emergency room at Stroger Hospital because she can’t afford office visits.

Kropp said the union bargaining team suggested a new health plan through the self-insured union health fund that would have cost workers one-tenth of what they’re paying now and save the YMCA money as well. That proposal was rejected, according to Kropp.

In mid-November, Kropp said the YMCA also replaced its chief negotiator and the new representative wanted to start the bargaining process all over again.

Sherrie Medina, vice president of marketing and communications for the YMCA of Metro Chicago, said she couldn’t comment on the ongoing negotiations but said the management team is committed to the process.

“Those discussions are ongoing so in order to continue those in good faith we do want to talk directly with SEIU at the bargaining table and we do hope we reach an agreement soon,” Medina said, adding that the organization respects and cares for its employees “immensely.”

The Y runs 12 child care agencies in Chicago that all voted to unionize with SEIU. Kropp said overall, the Y pays its workers toward the lower end of the child care wage scale. SEIU and its members are pushing what they call a “well-resourced” organization to shift that reality.

“The Y should be setting the standard in terms of workplace rights and pay and things like that,” Kropp said.

Medina declined to discuss the YMCA’s budget but emphasized the fact that the organization is a nonprofit. While health care concerns rose to the top of the demand list Thursday, workers also called for better wages and fully stocked classrooms with better resources. They expect better working conditions will cut down on the high teacher turnover rate that currently plagues early childhood classrooms.

Other actions are in the works to put the heat on the YMCA of Metro Chicago. When the teachers and union allies turned off their candles Thursday, they did so with the knowledge that the fight was not over. “We took it to the streets and we’re going to have to keep pushing forward,” said Keisha Claybron, another SEIU organizer.