Wednesday October 12, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- At least one local agency has joined the effort to unionize early childhood education workers in the state.

Tracy Sheerin, assistant director of KidZone Inc. in Pittsfield, testified last week before the Joint Committee on Public Service in support of a bill called an "act to improve quality in early education care centers," filed by Rep. Steven M. Walsh, D-Lynn.

Sheerin traveled by bus to the Statehouse with five workers from the center and a parent, and was part of a group of about a hundred early childhood educators and administrators to attend the hearing.

This week, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts officially endorsed the union proposal, which would enroll more than 10,000 early childhood education workers statewide, both in the private and nonprofit sectors. Another large teacher group, the Boston Alliance for Early Education, also backs the movement.

On Tuesday, Sheerin, a member of the campaign, known as the Massachusetts Early Childhood Educators Union (MECEU), described it to The Eagle as a "non-traditional" union proposal.

"It would be the first of its kind in Massachusetts to give child care workers, directors and center owners the right to bargain collectively with the state over three specific issues: fair compensation, benefits and professional development programs," Sheerin said.

Employees at more than 1,000 childhood centers that either have state contracts or receive some sort of state subsidy would be eligible to join. Custodians, van drivers and program directors who also work with children through the centers would also be eligible to join.

Opponents to an early-childhood educators union say it could increase costs, drive up tuition rates, reduce the number of vouchers available for low-income families and restrict the amount of control a center has over its operations.

Language of the bill said centers would maintain their federal labor rights, including autonomy over their hiring practices. The bill also states that workers of the proposed union would not be allowed to strike.

"We're looking for the same benefits as state public school teachers," Sheerin said.

In Massachusetts, there is a greater push for improved quality and accountability in early childhood education. The state has piloted a Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), which is already implemented in more than 20 U.S. states. The system audits early childhood programs on standards such as curriculum and learning; workforce qualifications; and administration.

These standards, also supported by the National Association for the Education of Young Children accrediting agency, are also pushing early child caregivers to attain either associate or bachelor's degrees, even master's degrees in the field.

But reports show that the average early childhood worker makes $9.12 per hour, and many centers do not offer health benefits.

The state department of Early Education and Care also requires that licensed teachers must complete 20 hours of training a year, which many teachers pay for out of pocket without any form of reimbursement. The new union would advocate for more affordable, high-quality programs.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.