Game Changer: What Now for Child Care Reform?



By Jacalyn S Burke,

Has it sunk in yet?

Maybe like me, you’re still processing, not able to define where you’re at – even to yourself. For others President Elect Trump represents a heard voice, a fresh start in a new America. A part of me wishes I could join that bandwagon even in an abstract sense. Perhaps that will change. Perhaps it will not.

America Divided

What’s definitive right now is the atmosphere of unrest among undocumented workers and their families, among Muslim Americans, among women, among African-Americans, among the LGBTQ community, among the Left, the DNC and old-school Republicans, among progressive Christians and …. so many others.

The Epix series “America Divided” captures this mood best.  The episode that got my attention was Episode 7 . It documented a group of child care workers so often overlooked yet essential to our economy: domestic workers. Some of the women interviewed were undocumented, many of the workers had been undocumented at some point but all of them spoke of abuse, low-wages and long hours.

Child Care Divided

For a professional American nanny or a youthful Au Pair these tales of suffering and oppression might not resonate – despite the fact that some larger Au Pair agencies have spent sizable budgets on keeping Au Pairs unprotected by State Domestic Laws. Yes – it might feel like a world away from their experiences of respectful families and employment contracts and a decent hourly rate paid on the books but don’t be fooled.

Dissecting the child care industry into separate groups, like: nannies, babysitters, documented, undocumented, migrant workers, Au Pairs and domestic workers isn’t just semantics, it’s the very etymology of hierarchy. Labels matter. How we identify ourselves, how we are identified and how our fellow workers within child care are characterized manifests into treatment, experience, a pay rate and the tasks we are asked to perform.

To employers, mostly but not exclusively American, this labor pool is one. The buyer makes the rules in the unlicensed world of child care. They also dictate the pay rates. For some, this has everything to do with a limited budget but for others it has to do with wielding class power.

Class power can only be maintained over a disorganized and disunited labor group. As the Romans well understood the mob is much more easily governed if it is divided. If child care workers are to enjoy a reformation within its industry it must first come together. In other words, the struggle of the domestic worker is my struggle.

Reform is Impossible without a Movement

In 1888, in the East End of London and in it’s most deprived neighborhood a group of women walked out of a factory. It became known as the Matchgirl’s Strike.  They walked out because they were literally dying through unsafe working conditions and they just couldn’t take it anymore.

So powerful was this spontaneous action that male labor unions soon joined them, and leading revolutionaries and progressives like Annie Besant lent their public support. The Suffragette movement comprised mostly of educated, affluent women took on the struggles of working-class women like the Matchgirls precisely because these women felt male oppression more keenly. They were at the bottom of the pile. This unity of purpose became the Woman’s Movement that eventually forced change in Great Britain and gave women the right to vote.

If child care reform appears less probable under a Trump administration that simply means that is more critical now than ever.

A Call to Action

Just as Americans are now organizing themselves around commonly held political convictions – so must we as child care workers and advocates, build a new coalition around some commonly held values and goals:

  • A living wage for all child care workers
  • Tax Reform, Higher Tax Credits for Working Families, Subsidized Government Programs
  • Paid Parental Leave
  • Immigration Reform, New Visa Programs for Child Care Workers
  • Professional accreditation status given to the child care industry that regulates its workforce and establishes universal standards and practices

This new Child Care Movement would be comprised of organizations that currently represent groups of child care workers but its force would come from the ordinary worker – our own Matchgirls. It would lobby and petition and demonstrate its size and power.

Now is not the time to shrink back into the shadows and wait it out. It is the time to come together as Americans and to engage this new administration in a unified, and peaceful way. There is no going back. There is only progress.

If a group of impoverished women from the East End of London could affect change for all factory workers – well, so can we.