The Role of Labor Unions in Advocating for Affordable and Accessible Childcare Services

Let’s face it: There are many great things about America, but it falls woefully behind other countries in promoting work-life balance. Take, for example, our fractured approach to childcare, which has left hundreds of thousands of families in a state of crisis. According to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey, nearly half of workers surveyed reported issues related to childcare played a role in them leaving their jobs.

The current childcare infrastructure impedes working parents from securing high-quality, cost-effective childcare services, and a notable absence of a nationwide paid-leave policy adds to the glaring lack of necessary family benefits and support. Consequently, a significant portion of the workforce grapples with the dual challenge of attending to their familial responsibilities while pursuing a career, feeling caught between the proverbial rock and hard place as they attempt to pull off the impossible.

To put it more plainly, the childcare system in America is in crisis.

For more than 20 years, high costs, lack of quality care, and complex regulations have increasingly restricted access to childcare. These limitations have placed a growing burden on working parents, who find themselves in a constant struggle between earning a paycheck and finding affordable daycare. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated these issues, with many families still reeling from the financial fallout of school shutdowns and childcare facility closures.

“If you don’t have a job, then you can’t afford to have childcare while you’re looking for one. If you get a job, you have to have childcare almost immediately so you can start. But there aren’t any spaces available,” working mom Sarah Smith said when interviewed by CBS News. For many families, this disempowering situation gives them no other option but to piecemeal their approach to childcare, leaving them vulnerable to job loss because of irregularities in schedules and available coverage.

The majority of the U.S. workforce also lacks guaranteed access to paid leave, which exacerbates an already stressful situation. Recent statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that nearly 80 percent of civilian workers do not have access to paid family leave, meaning the majority of working Americans are essentially financially abandoned when they have to take time away to care for a member of their family.

The current situation is clearly untenable. What can be done, and by whom?

The role of labor unions in securing family benefits for workers: how bargaining agreements, advocacy efforts, and raising awareness are slowly shifting the tides

The good news for working Americans is that labor unions have made family benefits a top priority. Labor unions play a crucial role in advocating for affordable and accessible childcare services, recognizing that access to quality childcare is a fundamental concern for working families. Here are several ways labor unions are fighting hard for families to get the benefits and protections they deserve.

Collective bargaining agreements

Union leaders continue to push for progress, using collective bargaining agreements to secure family benefits for workers. Labor unions are leveraging their collective bargaining power to negotiate for better benefits and support within labor agreements, advocating for provisions that include affordable childcare options, flexible scheduling, and financial assistance for employees, all of which help working parents balance their job responsibilities with their childcare needs.

Although some unions managed to secure temporary childcare benefits during the pandemic, others have been actively pursuing a more enduring solution. One recent success was executed by the Communications Workers of America, who won an additional two weeks of paid parental leave for members who work for the telecommunications company AT&T. The University of Connecticut Professional Employees and the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU-UAW) Local 5118 have engaged in negotiations to establish employer contributions to a dedicated childcare fund. UFCW Locals 21, 367, and 1439, along with Teamsters Local 38, successfully brokered an agreement for their members employed at Fred Meyer/QFC. This agreement introduced increased scheduling flexibility to accommodate the childcare requirements of employees.

Advocacy efforts

Labor unions are working with lawmakers to develop regulations that prioritize the safety and quality of childcare facilities while also striving to keep costs reasonable for parents. Labor unions also often collaborate with other advocacy groups, such as parent organizations, to build a strong voice in support of accessible childcare. Their lobbying efforts contribute to the formulation of government programs and subsidies that help alleviate the financial burden of childcare, making it more affordable and accessible to a broader spectrum of the workforce.

During the COVID-19 crisis, childcare advocates in San Diego County asked the county to use $5 million to pay for one month of free childcare for 3,000 essential service workers. Advocates also called for hazard pay for childcare workers, which is extra funds to account for the risks involved with interacting with many people. These efforts helped prompt Governor Gavin Newsom’s signing an executive order that made essential workers such as healthcare employees, first responders, and grocery store workers eligible for state-subsidized childcare regardless of income.

Although current federal efforts around a bold paid leave program have stalled, union leaders aren’t giving up. Instead, they’re forging ahead and building strong bases of support with lawmakers so that they can push their goals over the finish line and improve family benefits for working Americans.

Raising awareness

Labor unions play a crucial role in raising awareness about the importance of affordable childcare services. They educate their members and the public about the economic and social benefits of accessible childcare, emphasizing how it enables parents, particularly mothers, to participate in the workforce, which advances gender equality and reduces poverty. By advocating for childcare as an essential public service, labor unions help shift the perception of childcare from a private burden to a shared responsibility, fostering a society where families can thrive and the workforce remains productive and diverse.

Toward an equitable and family-centric future

The benefits and protections of union membership are more vital than ever. At LaborStrongLive we celebrate and amplify the efforts and voices of union leaders and labor workers who are striving to create innovative solutions that provide all Americans access the services they need to provide and care for themselves and their families. Better and broader benefits, backed by union power, are essential to the health and future of society.