Child Care Is an Organizing Tool

Child Care Is an Organizing Tool

Family-centric programming at worker centers has helped bolster organizing among working mothers—and led to invaluable policy victories.

Silvia Prado, a child-care provider, plays with the child of an organizer in La Colmena’s children’s area in 2022. (La Colmena/Facebook)

At La Colmena, a small community worker center in Staten Island with light yellow walls plastered with posters about labor rights, children play while their mothers organize.

“I started seeing the need to organize women and to look at the worker holistically, to see that they also have a life, they also have children,” said Yesenia Mata, executive director of La Colmena, which has supported low-wage immigrant workers, especially day laborers, since 2014. And at La Colmena, holistic support means child care.

For decades, worker centers have served as a vital source of advocacy for low-wage workers excluded from unions and traditional forms of labor organizing, often because they work in informal sectors not covered by federal labor law. But for working mothers, finding the time for organizing isn’t easy. That’s why in recent years, spurred by the pandemic, worker centers across the country have enacted family-friendly organizing strategies and programming. They are meeting their communities where they need it most.

These efforts have helped bolster organizing among working mothers—and led to invaluable victories on the policy level, providing a model for engagement and accessibility.

When New York State attempted to pass a budget in 2022 excluding undocumented children from newly expanded, publicly subsidized child care, La Colmena and its worker-members joined a coalition of advocates called the Care for All Families campaign. As a result of their organizing, New York City ultimately announced an additional $10 million to cover child care for 600 undocumented children.

That need for child care was clear at La Colmena. In 2021, it opened a new women’s group for workers primarily employed in the care economy. When the group began, staff and other members noticed that members would often drop out or miss meetings, which cover professional development and workers’ rights, because they lacked child care. So organizers told women to bring their children with them—a model that the center quickly outgrew. “Imagine having fifty women plus their children—it becomes a bit chaotic,” Mata said.

The center began organizing children’s programming as a new way of serving workers’ families while mothers met for workshops and meetings. What started as a series of classes to teach school-aged children traditional Mexican folklórico dances has since expanded into several initiatives for kids of all ages—including, most recently, a small on-site early child-care center.

Ever since, attendance at the women’s meetings has soared—nearly tripling in size from thirty to eighty-seven members over the course of 2022.

“It’s an opportunity for women to learn, because they often dedicate themselves to their homes, and to caring for their children or their husbands,” said Silvia Silvero, a member of the women’s group who brings her toddler to meetings. As a child-care worker herself, she also watches over children in the center’s on-site early childhood center.

“Not everyone’s disposed to learning or has the time,” she said of La Colmena’s workshops. “Sometimes, they need that little push, too. They need a little support.”

In addition to making organizing more accessible to women workers, according to Mata, the child-care option has also provided a valuable labor lesson for the entire family: “The little ones get to see their own mothers organizing. They say, ‘That’s my mom—she’s leading this!’”

Child care is a prerequisite for making organizing accessible for American mothers, who provide an estimated $1.5 trillion in unpaid household labor and care work every year. Yet to their detriment, the mainstream labor and feminist movements have at times neglected the complex needs of working families.

Mothers have a long history of activism. They played crucial roles in the global peace movement and the creation of the modern welfare state. For decades, Black mothers affected by police violence have channeled their grief into advocacy, while mothers across the world have spearheaded campaigns against the disappearances of their children under military dictatorships.

Still, mainstream feminist movements have long had a fraught relationship to motherhood, at times to the point of stigmatization. At the same time, as historians Eileen Boris and Annelise Orleck have written, throughout the twentieth century, working-class women “battled men who sought to exclude women from unionized jobs and who denied organized women workers a full share of power in the labor movement.” It’s no surprise that low-wage working mothers, especially women of color and immigrants, have not always felt welcomed or supported in mainstream movements. (One notable exception was the Black Panther Party’s full-time day school program, which provided care and education for the children of Panther members while their parents organized.)

As the labor movement experiences a resurgence and mainstream feminist movements reassess their relation to motherhood, it’s past time to recognize the importance of child care to organizing among working mothers—and the importance of working mothers to movement-building. At worker centers across the country, those discussions and innovations are already well underway.

Neighbors Link, a community center with three locations in Westchester County in New York, was founded twenty-one years ago to provide services and programming for day laborers, who are typically men employed per diem without contracts in industries like construction. When their wives began asking for their own workshops and help navigating their children’s schools, organizers at the community center realized that “there was this huge need for this other population that we weren’t serving yet,” according to Stephanie Rosado. She is now director of the group’s Family Center, which provides child care and other family-friendly initiatives for parents participating in Neighbors Link programming.

“We want to make sure our programs are inclusive and accessible,” Rosado said. “If we weren’t able to provide child care for many of our programs, our families wouldn’t be able to participate.”

What worker centers may lack in the traditional bargaining power of unions, they make up for in a nimble and grassroots approach to organizing. That responsive approach has helped worker centers explode in popularity in recent decades, with an estimated 246 centers across the country in 2021.

A key part of their success has been their commitment to “whole worker” organizing. “They help members see the connections between the discrimination they face in the workplace and discrimination they face in a larger community and larger society,” said Daniel J. Galvin, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. “All of these are manifestations of the lack of power that low-wage workers typically have over the decisions that shape their lives. The workplace is just one arena in which that happens.”

That’s a large part of the reason that worker centers founded to provide safe spaces for day laborers to have breakfast, find jobs, or report wage theft have expanded to include services like child care. They’re uniquely positioned to pave the way for innovate responses to the needs of workers, including working mothers. For unions that have moved in recent years to more holistic approaches of their own, like “bargaining for the common good,” these initiatives at workers centers can teach valuable lessons.

While men make up the majority of the country’s roughly 120,000 day laborers, women also regularly engage in the informal economy. For centuries, domestic workers and care workers, including cleaners and nannies, have been explicitly excluded from federal labor laws and protections—a remnant of slavery that also applies to farmworkers and so-called independent contractors in the gig economy. More than 90 percent of domestic workers are women, and more than half are women of color.

In many cases, child-care workers can’t afford the skyrocketing costs of child care for their own children. That’s especially true for undocumented or mixed-status families who do not always qualify for federal programs. “There’s this dual pain of providing these services that you yourself can’t afford,” said Marokey Sawo, an economist specializing in the care economy at the Economic Policy Institute.

In addition to supporting workers on the ground, worker centers have become increasingly involved in securing policy wins in the fights for a higher minimum wage and protections against wage theft and other forms of exploitation. That includes victories for working mothers and low-wage women workers. With the help of worker centers and umbrella organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, ten states and several cities have passed domestic worker bills of rights, which push for paid sick leave, break and rest requirements, protections against harassment, and more.

At Neighbors Link, organizers and workers have used their connections in the community to advocate for important policy issues at the local, state, and national level, including drivers’ licenses for undocumented New Yorkers and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

For many women in the movement, worker centers have also been a powerful source of community and solidarity. When Esther Cedillo first walked into Esperanza Community Center last winter for a women’s empowerment workshop, she took her toddler son with her. Esperanza, a small worker center, hasn’t always had a designated children’s area—but then, it hasn’t always had women’s programming. It was originally founded to support day laborers in West Palm Beach, Florida, home to one of the largest Guatemalan and Indigenous Mayan communities in the United States.

But after women began asking for their own programming last year, Maricela Torres, executive director of Esperanza, created a vision-board workshop as the center’s first women’s initiative. “We were expecting between five to ten women that day, but we had over fifteen women show up—with their children,” Torres said. “The women were really hungry for this type of interaction with each other.”

The initiative ultimately became a program called Mujeres Fuertes (Strong Women), a nine-week course designed to empower mothers with young children through workshops designed to help them defend their rights and advocate for their children’s needs. The program also features an on-site child care center, so mothers can focus on programming.

When Cedillo first began attending sessions, her young son refused to leave her side and join the other children, but as she continued attending classes at the center, he became more comfortable—and she did, too. She’s even convinced her husband, who works in gardening and construction, to attend some classes and workshops at the day laborer center. Sometimes, they’ll attend classes as a family.

“This is the first program of its kind that I’ve seen like that—where they have that option to care for your children,” said Cedillo. “It’s so important for a mother.”

Sara Herschander is a reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work covering labor and social movements has previously appeared in the American Prospect, Truthout, and the Associated Press, among other publications. She is one of Dissent‘s 2022 Emerging Writers.