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Sectoral bargaining for child care workers would help fix staffing shortages

If governments want to increase child care availability, they should make changes that make it easier and more effective to unionize the sector

December 5, 2023

5-minute read

Many Canadian families are now paying 50 per cent less for child care than they were in 2020 with the rollout of the Canada-Wide Early Learning and Child Care Agreements (CWELCC), otherwise known as $10-per-day child care. But affordable and high-quality child care is still a luxury many parents do not have access to because of a lack of available spaces at licensed child care providers.

In fact, Canada needs between 243,000 and 315,000 new child care spots to meet demand—and an additional 32,000 educators to staff these spaces.

This will be impossible to achieve as long as early childhood educators (ECEs) remain in short supply, driven from the profession by low wages and poor compensation.

A 2023 Statistics Canada report on Canadian centres serving children aged 0 - 5 years reported that the average hourly wage was $21.40-per-hour for staff with an ECE credential and only $17-per-hour for staff with no ECE credential.

Most of these workers also did not have access to paid personal leave, and RRSPS or a private pension.A third did not even have health benefits.

While all provincial and territorial governments are relying on a combination of wage enhancements or a salary scale to to improve compensation for child care workers, wages are still significantly below what child care advocacy organisations are calling for.

Knowing this, child care advocates, unions, and the public should push for provincial and territorial governments to legislate sectoral bargaining for the child care sector. This would give unions the ability to bargain to establish competitive wage grids and improved total compensation for all child care workers across the entire industry, instead of worksite by worksite.

It is difficult to unionize child care workers

You might wonder why child care workers need a sector-wide agreement when they could unionize their worksite and begin bargaining with their employer to establish a collective agreement.That is, after all, what many workers in Canada already do.

It is difficult to unionize child care workers, like other low-wage workers, and the unionization rate of child care centres remains low across Canada. In 2007, only approximately 23 per cent of regulated child care workers were members of a union.

This is partly because of the high rate of attrition in the child care sector. When approximately 50 per cent of ECEs leave the field within the first five years, it is more difficult for workers to form the trust needed with each other to establish a union.

Some are also hesitant to join a union because they worry that parents may think that they are only in the field “for the money”, rather than because of their passion for caring for children.

According to labour studies experts such as Charlotte Yates of McMaster University, unions need to overcome this hesitancy by supporting workers’ relationships with families. This can be achieved by continuing to stress that higher wages for child care workers will also benefit children and their families by increasing quality of care.

Child care workers need sectoral bargaining

Knowing the difficulty of unionizing individual child care centres, provincial and territorial government should legislate sectoral bargaining in the child care sector. This would allow unions to come together to negotiate with employers and government to establish a pay scale, paid time off, and benefits for the entire child care sector—including workers who are not unionized.

While sectoral bargaining is not common in Canada, where a workplace-centric model of collective bargaining dominates, it does occur in some industries and sectors, including in the public sector and in the construction industry in most jurisdictions.

Notably, Quebec unions used centralized bargaining in 1999 to win average raises of over 35 per cent and a commitment to establish a pension plan and do a pay equity evaluation for all child care staff working in licensed centres, including non-unionized workers.

Unfortunately, governments and labour unions have historically had limited will to expand sectoral bargaining to other sectors because of strong backlash from employers and concern about sectoral agreements undermining the power of local-level collective agreements, among other things.

But as union coverage continues to decline and income inequality increases, governments should see sectoral bargaining as a political win with inflation-weary low-income voters and unions should see it as a way to increase collective bargaining coverage in hard-to-unionize sectors.

New Zealand’s Fair Pay Agreement (FPA)

Canadian researchers Sara Slinn and Mark Rowlinson, have already proposed New Zealand’s Fair Pay Agreement (FPA) as a good model for expanding sectoral bargaining in Canada.

Under the FPA model, the sectoral agreement would not replace more competitive worksite-specific collective agreements—protecting the representation rights of unions who already represent child care workers.

Child care workers, in this model, would have two pathways to initiate sectoral bargaining under the FPA. The first involves unions winning the right to bargain for workers by passing a representation test where unions demonstrate support from 10 per cent of the sector or 500 workers. Unions have already reached this threshold in certain provinces, including Saskatchewan and Ontario, based on union coverage.

Alternatively, child care workers could become eligible via a “public interest test.” This alternative pathway would allow sectoral bargaining to commence if workers in the sector experience low pay and one other factor related to low wage growth or unfair compensation practices. These factors, as outlined in the FPA model, would easily apply to child care workers.

This alternative pathway would be useful to initiate sectoral bargaining for child care workers in provinces and territories where the unionization rate is very low, such as Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and the Northwest Territories.

Government needs to participate in sectoral bargaining

It will also be important to bring the provincial/territorial and federal governments to the bargaining table when negotiating a sectoral agreement for child care workers. Governments provide the bulk of funding to child care centres and licensed in-home providers signed on to CWELCC.

One of the reasons unions fail to make measurable gains for child care workers during collective bargaining is because governments do not participate in contract negotiations with the employer and the union. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for cash-strapped centres or child care agencies to agree to wage and compensation increases for workers without raising child care fees.

This situation can be contrasted with some successful examples from the U.S. where state governments participated in collective bargaining. Unions representing home-based child care providers were able to win health and dental benefits in Washington and a $40 million training fund in California because of this dynamic.

Mandate government participation in sectoral bargaining

The FPA requires that government be involved in sectoral negotiations if the proposed sectoral agreement includes at least one employee of a public service agency or the education service.

Since some child care workers are employed by school boards and in municipally-run centres, implementing an FPA equivalent in Canada would require government participation in sectoral negotiations for the child care sector.

Australia’s multi-employer bargaining model is an even better model for enforcing government participation. The ‘supported bargaining stream’ option in Australia’s multi-employer bargaining model requires government to participate in negotiations if they are primary funders of a sector and/or occupation.

This mechanism better recognizes the responsibility government has to support workers in sectors and industries it funds—including the child care sector, where most workers are directly employed by nonprofit and for-profit child care centres which receive significant government funding under the new child care agreements.

In June 2023, 12,000 early childhood educators across 64 centres in Australia used the ‘supported bargaining stream’ to win the right to bargain for pay rises up to 25 per cent with government sitting at the bargaining table.

By giving unions the right to bargain to establish sectoral agreements for the child care sector, provincial and territorial governments would be supporting a viable workforce strategy that would support the retention of child care workers in the sector. This will then further support the continued expansion of $10-per-day child care across the country.

While different levels of government—especially the federal government—have made significant progress over the past years in making child care more accessible, there is still a long road ahead. That road includes obstacles, especially around lack of availability in child care centres—a lack caused in large part by a lack of staff. Implementing sectoral bargaining would help to improve working conditions in the sector, attract more workers, and fully realize the dream of universally-accessible child care.

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