Child care workers’ struggle for recognition and respect intensifies
Early this February 2018, the Full Bench of the Fair Work Commission rejected child care workers union’s claim for significant pay rises for the largely female child care workforce.
The child care workers union’s claim is really about equal pay for women performing comparable value to work in the more male dominated manufacturing industry.
The pay rises sought range from 39% to 72% per week depending on classification level. With a base rate in lower classifications starting at $21 per hour, a 39% wage increase would increase the minimum child care worker hourly rate to $29.20 phased in over time at that.
Child care workers union United Voice responded to the Commission Decision by reinforcing their members' decision that hundreds of child care centres would participate in a 'walk off' ' on 27 March this year with support from centre management and thousands of parents whose children use the centres each working day.
Child Care Workers Have A Long History Of Struggle
The Full Bench had the audacity to say that no evidence was provided to support their case that their wages were comparable to manufacturing workers. The Full Bench is full of itself and that is about all. All it had to do was look at what has happened to wage levels in the services sectors since the enterprise bargaining system came into being in the early 1990s to see how far wages of services sector workers such as child care have fallen behind manufacturing industry wages.
Prior to the enterprise bargaining system, unions were able to 'flow on' wage increases to other industry sectors won in manufacturing awards by creating a dispute through workers in other sectors taking action.
After 1993 any gains made by workers through the process of a company-specific or workplace-specific Enterprise Agreement were quarantined in a legal system. The industrial laws brought in by the Hawke/Keating Governments did not allow unions to argue that wage increases won in one workplace should apply to other workplaces even in the same industry, let alone in another sector, such as child care. So workers in a workplace or sector with less "industrial muscle" than a car assembly factory fell further and further behind in wages compared to workers in large production workplaces.
Despite this deliberate strategy of the ruling class and their willing helpers in parliament (and in some cases in union leaderships) to de-collectivise the working class through site specific, employer specific enterprise bargaining, child care workers have shown remarkable resilience and determination to surmount all difficulties to win recognition and respect.
Their struggle began in the late1980s when in some states, there was not even a child care sector industrial award. Child care workers in some states were paid as "Others" under a private hospitals and ancillary workers award. When the then Miscellaneous Workers Union applied to the Industrial Commission for a specific award for child care workers, employers opposed it while governments who funded the sector were at best neutral observers to the Union's claim.
Child care workers took to the streets in support of their demand for their own sector award. It was their collective activity and increasing demand for child care services in the community that resulted in the Commission reflecting this in its Decision to approve a distinct Child Care Workers Award.
Through more protracted struggle, child care workers then won improvements in the 1990s to the classification structure in the newly formed Award. In the early 2000s they campaigned and won improvements in staff-to-children ratios which also took in to account the different needs of children of different age groups within the child care centres.
These wins occurred in a political environment where both major parties supported to one degree or another reduced public funded community-based child care and an increase in the private for-profit child care sector. The private for-profit child care sector actively opposed child care workers union’s claims for better wages and for recognition that child care workers were not just "child minders" but workers who provided a critical role in early childhood education. The privatisation of a significant part of the sector proved to be a disaster with "get rich quick' operators like Eddie Groves who started and then crashed the ABC Care Centre chain, siphoning off money from parents, workers and the taxpayers.
In the Howard Government years of Work Choices, child care workers in the better organised community-based centres defended as best they could their existing wage levels and conditions through template consent Enterprise Agreements, while private for-profit child care centres sought to utilise the stripped back awards and Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs -individual contracts) to lower wages and increase profits.
Despite these attacks on union members wages and conditions, child care workers union numbers remained much higher than in other private sector industries.
When the ALP won the federal election in 2007 and individual contracts in the form of the AWAs became unlawful, child care workers intensified their demands for more government funding of child care for “professional rates" . The workers held many rallies and delegations to parliament house in Canberra to win support from the ALP for sufficient funding for pay increases that reflected child care workers’ worth and socially important role in providing a strong educational foundation for children in the early stages of development.
However, the financial "pie" of the ALP government was declining due to its unwillingness to mobilise the people and take on the big end of town, particularly the mining companies and the financial institutions, most of them foreign owned or foreign owned connected.
The ALP government decided that it would give more money of the shrinking pie to the deregulated disabilities sector though their NDIS rather than child care. The increased finances allocated to child care workers required them to negotiate new Enterprise Agreements on an employer by employer basis.
Time ran out and so did the finances when the more reactionary Abbott Government came to office in 2013.
Faced with a government openly hostile to both workers and their unions, child care workers and their unions decided to adopt a two-pronged strategy. The workers agreed that they needed to intensify collective action on the job around the demand for professional rates of pay. They also agreed that they needed to win support from both managements of the centres and parents that the child care sector needed a well-trained, stable workforce and that this would only occur if the federal government funded professional rates from general revenue, not from increasing child care fees.
Child care workers also agreed to participate as required in the legal application in the Fair Work Commission for wage increases based on equality with male dominated industries such as manufacturing.
Lost: The Latest Legal Battle But Not The Class War
While child care workers have lost the latest legal battle under the anti-worker Fair Work Act, they have not lost the class war. The class war will intensify with thousands of child care workers walking off the job on 27 March in centres across every State and Territory.
This day of action will be an example of workers uniting with their allies (centre managers and parents) to take effective action through centre closures which cannot be determined as "unprotected action" under the horrid Fair Work Act.
Prior to the 27 March, the reactionary Turnbull Government may try to pressure child care centre managers and owners to back down and not close their centres on the day. This will only raise the ire of child care workers even more and further isolate the government which would rather spend money contributing to the US war machine than contributing to the development of a stable, well-paid, well-trained child care workforce for the country’s future - its children.