Child Care Manifesto

Jocelyn Olcott
31 May 2024

What comes after consciousness raising for child care workers and the families who rely on them?

On May 16, facing what researchers have dubbed a “child care cliff,” the National Domestic Workers Alliance joined forces with Child Care for NC to organize a state-wide Day without Child Care in North Carolina.  Anticipating next month’s expiration of federal support for child care centers, care providers closed their centers for the day and came to Raleigh to call on the state’s General Assembly to address the financial shortfall that is expected to result in the closure of nearly one-third of North Carolina’s child care centers, eliminating about 92,000 spots.

As Care Talk readers know, the economics of child care are famously thorny.  As researchers at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment have shown, the tensions over the cost of child care have drawn national attention since the 1980s.  Raising wages to a level that will attract and retain high-quality care workers and afford them a dignified living risks increasing the cost of child care at a moment when many families are already squeezed by other inflationary pressures.

As Christine Delphy pointed out four decades ago, a distinguishing characteristic of child care — along with other forms of domestic labor as well as agricultural labor — is that many individuals perform it in both commodified and uncommodified forms.  Indeed, several participants in the May 16 action reported that they became child care providers because they could not afford child care, having lost vouchers or simply finding it too expensive. Child care workers expressed deep empathy for families facing this household budget constraint.

One of the challenges of addressing unpaid care as a labor issue is that the principal tactic of the labor movement — the strike — is only available in such a severely contained form that it loses much of its force.  As Verónica Gago has argued, the “feminist strike” has delivered on the promise of mass mobilization and increased visibility around issues of both gender violence and unpaid care labors. Nonetheless, it has proven very difficult to pull off more than a one-day work stoppage. 

There are plenty of examples of one-day work stoppages. The Wages for Housework movement of the 1970s deployed the strategies of autonomous Marxism to demand recognition of social reproduction — the factory floor of social reproduction — as well as the possibility of refusing that work.  This effort has also lead to a series of one-day work stoppages, including in Reykyavik in 1975 and again in 1985 as well as annual March 8 demonstrations in recognition of International Workingwomen’s Day. 

These temporally defined labor withdrawals, much like the 2006 Day without an Immigrant protests or the recent general strike in Argentina, make a significant impact in terms of raising consciousness about social injustices.  They also raise the question of what it would take to pull off a full-fledged strike — the kind where labor is withheld until a negotiated settlement is reached and where success is measured by the extent to which demands are met.

There are several reasons that such an action would pose a significant organizing challenge.  Much as the association with unpaid care labor depresses wages for care workers, it also limits the range of strategies they can borrow from organized labor.  As far as I know (and I’d love to be proven wrong!), there are no historical examples of unpaid care workers withdrawing their labor until collective demands are met or a negotiated settlement is reached.  Indeed, even among paid care workers, strikes are exceedingly rare and difficult to organize.

There are plenty of explanations for this absence, the most obvious being that the withdrawal of care labor can have dire — even fatal — consequences for those who depend upon that labor.  Unpaid care workers often perform that labor out of a combination of obligation and affection. It’s a bit more palatable for paid care workers, but they are still much less likely to engage in a full-blown strike and refusal of work than in other employment sectors. Most people don’t have the stomach to watch their human and non-human friends and family suffer while withholding the capacity to alleviate that suffering.

Another challenge to mobilizing child care workers to strike is that it is often unclear where to direct their demands.  Since child care centers are often small businesses, they’re not as appealing a target as, say, General Motors or larger networks of hospitals and nursing homes.  Workers in child care centers, often parents themselves, share concerns about increasing the price of child care.  This month’s action in North Carolina directed its demand to the General Assembly, calling for it to finally pass the $300 million stabilization grant that was tabled at the end of the last session, which would keep the doors open for another year.  It makes sense to direct the demand toward the state because the need for high-quality, affordable child care affects nearly all North Carolinians one way or another.

There are plenty of reasons to support pre-K child care centers with public funds.  Ample research demonstrates the importance of early childhood development for a person’s future flourishing.  As the Covid-19 pandemic reminded us, many parents cannot participate in the paid labor force without child care and schooling available for at least part of their work days.  Child care centers provide children with critical social and emotional tools that allow them to thrive in subsequent educational settings.  While some large employers and even some small employers offer affordable child care to their employees, most do not want to assume the attendant expense and liability

There are extensive debates about whether child care subsidies, where available, should be targeted or universal.  It would likely be more politically palatable to offer a subsidy to parents of all pre-K children and allow them to use it however they like, including for having a family member or someone else provide care at home.  (The US tax code, for example, offers only an earned-income tax credit rather than universal child care support.)  Such a policy would return us, of course, to the difficult question of the monetary value of such a subsidy.

Bracketing for the moment what specific policies would best address the child care crisis, the Day without Child Care raises the question of whether the present urgency requires a change from the feminist tool of consciousness raising to the labor-movement tool of refusal. Given the importance of child care across society, perhaps any action would look more like a general strike, involving not only child care workers but also the families who depend upon them and others who might strike in solidarity because their lives (sometimes literally) depend on it. 

It would be folly to ignore the long history demonstrating the challenges of striking in this sector, but recent labor actions and social movements offer some creative and inspiring ideas. The Durham Public Schools and the UAW’s Stand-Up Strike deployed rotating labor actions, adding an element of surprise and — in the case of the schools — avoiding affecting the same families with every action.  North Carolina also has the example of the Moral Monday movement, bringing weekly demonstrations to the General Assembly in 2013 to protest the radical policies implemented by a conservative supermajority. The North Carolina General Assembly has a little over a month to decide whether to support child care centers.  Building on the momentum of the Day without Child Care, providers might engage in rotating closures and an organized campaign for people to contact legislators and remind them about the devastating effects of losing child care.  One way or another, we need to keep the pressure on to support a sustainable child care system that allows child care workers to live with dignity, child care centers to exist with less precarity, and children themselves to access the care they need.

The cover picture is designed by Nancy Folbre
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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