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In the summer of 2002, the city of Boston watched a fierce battle unfold between low-wage workers who provide child care and the social service agencies that employ them. Boston requires its city contractors to pay more than twice the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour to their employees, according to the terms of the city's "living wage" ordinance. The social service agencies, which receive government subsidies to run their child care programs, claimed that they could not afford to pay this rate. These agencies mounted an intense legal and political campaign, arguing that they would be forced to lay off workers if the city did not exempt them from the living wage requirement, and that they would be compelled to cut off affordable child care for low-income working parents as a consequence. Child care workers, through advocacy groups, responded vigorously that the workers were no less in need of economic support than these low-income working parents, arguing that these are the very types of workers the law was intended to protect.

Although this particular battle was new, the principles behind it were not. The conflict over the living wage waiver is reminiscent of another struggle that has been taking place around the country for more than a decade as teachers and other employees of Head Start programs initiate union drives and their nonprofit Community Action Agency employers attempt to thwart these efforts. Over the past fifteen years, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Auto Workers (UAW), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and other labor unions have embarked on union organizing campaigns at Head Start programs in Community Action Agencies (CAAs) across the country, from Boston to Houston, Hartford to Los Angeles, New York City to Cleveland, Minneapolis to Michigan. “Head Start works because we do,” one union’s slogan proclaims. Although some CAA employers have accepted the union drives without much rancor, labor strife between Head Start teachers and their employers has been a common story.

Both the living wage struggle and the unionization conflicts manifest a strange tension. The avowed mission of many social service agencies, including the CAAs that operate Head Start programs, is to empower individuals, families, and communities in poverty and to assist them along the path to economic self-sufficiency. The labor movement and worker advocates claim similar goals. What, then, lies behind this clash, and what dynamics does the conflict create? More importantly, how can the parties move beyond this conflict and mutually support their common missions?

Answering these questions is crucial, for the issues at the heart of this struggle are hardly going away. As living wage movements gain momentum around the country, as social service labor unions gain influence in the labor movement, as the nonprofit sector increases in prominence, and as the country turns its attention to early childhood education and to the low-wage labor market in the wake of welfare reform, the workforce that is the subject of the Head Start unionization battle stands at the center of important national concerns.

This Note outlines initial answers to the questions above. After briefly describing the history and mission of CAAs and the Head Start program, and their intersection with the labor movement, Part I analyzes the practical, rhetorical, and legal arenas in which the battle over Head Start unionization is waged. Part II proposes strategies for change, offering legislative solutions, regulatory proposals, and preemptive problem solving and dispute resolution possibilities. My central thesis is that the labor movement and the CAAs that operate Head Start programs have many common interests and overlapping missions, and that the two sides in this conflict can and should move beyond competition to cooperation. The struggle over unionization is not simply about the distribution of an inadequate pot of money, so it is not a zero-sum game; beneath the specific points of contention lie opportunities for the parties to work together amicably to achieve better results. I focus on unions in Head Start programs, rather than on the living wage, because the union struggle has a much longer history, but I hope that lessons from the union struggle will inform the emerging living wage debate. In fact, the battle over the living wage may actually comprise the latest stage in the Head Start unionization conflict, since unions themselves have organized and supported several living wage campaigns in recent years. Understanding the history of this conflict is essential to changing its future.

Publication Citation

38 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 247 (2003)