article
June 12, 2015

Gaining respect at heart of early childhood workers' vote to unionize

Author: Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT Communications

More than 100 early childhood education workers have voted to unionize, continuing NYSUT’s string of organizing success of employees at Birch Family Services in New York City.

The new units, at Birch’s Springfield Gardens and Manhattan early childhood centers, voted, 60-5, to organize in May. The Birch Springfield workers voted 60-to-5 in favor of unionizing. At Birch Manhattan, the vote was 46-to-13. Upon certification by the National Labor Relations Board, the new units are expected to become part of the United Federation of Teachers.

Birch Family Services runs a wide network of school, residence and support programs throughout New York City, including seven early childhood centers and one 853 school. NYSUT over the last few years has succeed in organizing five of the centers, and union officials hope to hold votes in the near future at the three remaining education facilities.

The organizing success at the Birch centers has resulted in roughly 300 new union members, said NYSUT Organizer and Labor Relations Specialist Daniel Esakoff.

The professions now represented include: teachers; teacher assistants; teacher aides; speech therapists; occupational therapists; psychologists and nurses.

Motivating the Birch staff to unionize was a difficult work environment, which included employees going without raises for more than six years, changes in workplace policies that often occurred without warning and the implementation of often-times punitive measures — especially involving the use of sick time.

“These people work very hard at what they do and they love their kids and their co-workers,” said Esakoff. “But they felt they were treated disrespectfully.”

Shavonne Howard, an intake specialist at Birch’s Springfield Gardens Early Childhood Center, said workers at her facility voted to organize in order to be heard on the job.
“We had no voice,” she said. “There was no morale. People were just tired.”

Howard said workers were often threatened with termination if they did not meet certain increased qualification — despite the fact management never offered any assistance or training to help employees meet those standards.

Workers, Howard said, are finally “glad there’s someone to speak for them now if there’s a problem.”

“Often times,” said Esakoff, the decision to organize “just comes down to wanting respect.”