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Enemies at the Gate

Michigan’s home-based child care providers formed a union of their own in 2006. Since then, they have fought two right-wing organizations that want to deny them their hard-won victory.

By Clyde Weiss
Michigan Child Care Providers
(Photo credit: AFSCME Staff)

Stronger As A Union 

Michigan’s home-based child care providers formed a union of their own in 2006. Since then, they have fought two right-wing organizations that want to deny them their hard-won victory. They have won several court victories, but the battle continues.

 

By Clyde Weiss

Robin Edwards has been a child care provider for the past four years under a Michigan program that helps low-income parents find and keep a job. But with the program paying her so little for her labors - and without benefits or anyone to stand with her in case of a dispute with the agency that administers it - Edwards began to realize that she, and thousands of others like her, "was the lowest person on the totem pole."

Edwards was eager to improve the lives of the state's 40,000 home-based child care providers, of whom approximately two-thirds care for the children of relatives, as she does. So she volunteered to help build a union. In late 2006, Edwards joined an overwhelming majority who cast their votes to be represented by Child Care Providers Together Michigan (CCPTM), a partnership of AFSCME Council 25 and the United Auto Workers (UAW).

Their victory celebration was short-lived. The Mackinac (pronounced mak-in-aw) Center for Public Policy in Michigan, and the Virginia-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, filed lawsuits to block the union from representing providers or collecting dues. If either was successful, the new union would be unable to effectively represent the child care providers.

Who Are Those Guys?

The Mackinac Center, the nation's largest state-based conservative "think tank," supports corporate tax breaks and so-called "right to work" laws that undermine union solidarity. It opposes prevailing wage laws, which guarantee that contractors don't exploit workers on public works projects by underpaying them.

The privatization of public services, such as state prisons, is also a major goal of the Mackinac Center. They go so far as to propose eliminating state-run employment agencies, which provide unemployed Americans with much-needed services, and replacing them with for-profit staffing-service businesses. They even want to privatize some state parks.

But what's most important - when it comes to the state's home-based child care providers - is that the Mackinac Center also opposes Edwards' new union. In September 2009, the organization filed suit against the state Department of Human Services on behalf of three providers recruited for the purpose. Although the Michigan Court of Appeals promptly rejected the lawsuit, Mackinac prevailed on a higher court to send the case back so the appeals court could explain its decision.

Last September, the appeals court again ruled against Mackinac, explaining that the state could not ignore the results of a certified union election. Still not satisfied, the Mackinac Center returned to court in October, requesting reconsideration. The court rejected that request, too.

That the Mackinac Center is so determined to undermine Edwards' union comes as no surprise to AFSCME. Paul Kersey, Mackinac's director of labor policy since 2007, has written extensively against workers' rights to belong to a union, saying that "collective bargaining for government employees is not an inalienable right."

Before joining Mackinac, Kersey worked three years at the misleadingly named National Right to Work Committee. Its legal attack arm, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, filed suit in federal court last February against Edwards' new union. That case is still pending.

The "right to work" in the organization's title refers to the organization's support for laws that allow workers - who choose not to join - to be "free riders" and get all the benefits of being a member without helping to defray the expense of achieving those benefits. In other words, they can receive the same wage increases and benefits negotiated by the union, but without paying their fair share. It's a strategy that anti-worker organizations use to undermine the right of employees to act collectively in their own self interest.

The Web They Weave

Whether through the legal system or in the court of public opinion, groups like the Mackinac Center and National Right to Work Committee strive constantly to undermine workers' collective bargaining rights. That effort requires money, and their network of financial backers is wide and deep.

Unlike public institutions that operate in the light of day, these organizations refuse to disclose their source of funding. Nonetheless, some researchers have managed to pull back the curtain a little on their finances, discovering a web of wealthy, right-wing benefactors - those who personally stand to gain the most by the Center's "policy" positions.

The Mackinac Center's donors include billionaire Charles G. Koch, a major supporter of organizations behind the tea party. (See story, Page 9.) Another is a foundation operated by the children of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. The company has doggedly opposed efforts of its workforce to organize a union.

Also giving heavily to the Mackinac Center is The Rodney Fund, operated by former Mackinac board member James Rodney, chairman of plastics company Detroit Forming. The Rodney Fund also supports the Cato Institute, a right-wing think tank co-founded by Charles Koch; tea party supporter FreedomWorks, headed by former U.S. House Republican majority leader Dick Armey; and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

Other Mackinac Center backers also fund the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Castle Rock Foundation, which is part of the organization of the right-wing Adolph Coors brewing family. Castle Rock has given money to a variety of right-wing groups, including the Heritage and Cato foundations.

This extensive, intertwined web of wealthy benefactors is pushing an agenda that includes weakening the ability of working families to build better futures through collective bargaining.

Why Us?

Before starting work at a steakhouse in the evening, Edwards' daughter sends her two children, 9 and 11, to Edwards to take care of them until she returns. "When they come home from school, I make sure the homework is done, feed them and get them ready for bed," says Edwards.

For that, Edwards earns approximately $1.60 per hour through the state child care program. It isn't much, but "as of right now, it's helping to pay the bills." As small as her compensation is, it used to be smaller. But one year after organizing their union, the providers ratified a groundbreaking contract with the state that included their first raise in 10 years (a rate hike ranging from 13 to 35 percent over three years).

In addition, it established a "Provider Bill of Rights" to build dignity on the job, including a grievance procedure to protect against unjust actions. "Basically, it's for us to continue to grow and to have a say-so in what's going on," explains Edwards, now president of CCPTM/Local 3051. "Without the union," she adds, "we would not have had a seat at the table or a voice to stand up with us when we have had complaints" with the Michigan Department of Human Services.

Having a say on the job - to improve the quality of care that children receive - is basically the reason why 150,000 of these professionals (including those working in Head Start, day care and early childhood settings) are now represented by AFSCME in 15 states.

Whether Michigan's home-based child care providers are able to keep that voice through CCPTM/AFSCME Local 3051 depends on the courts. But the ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals offers them hope they will prevail.

"By throwing out the Mackinac lawsuit, brought by a tiny group of anti-small business, anti-government ideologues bent on destroying the partnership of Michigan child care providers," CCPTM Dir. Herbert Sanders said last year, "the court supported the families and children of Michigan, and the quality, affordable child care that Michigan businesses depend on to have reliable workers."