Grantees & Grantmaking | November 28, 2023

How Non-Unionized Workers Are Advocating for Worker Rights: Confluence Fund Part II

By Katti Gray    


Part I of this series describes Workers Confluence Fund of Minnesota and its support for legislative wins by worker centers and their collaborations with unions. Part II tells the story of how worker centers and other grassroots groups advocate for workers and the many ways they achieve impact.

A cash-strapped childcare center owner found her voice and helped secure a major victory for childcare workers through Confluence’s strategies for justice.

Childcare had been so unreliable that Courtney Greiner left her job in banking 11 years ago to care for her and her husband’s own children and, eventually, other people’s kids.

Occupationally, it was a huge leap. Caring for kids in her Minnesota home, and later a storefront of her small town, gave her a crash course in the assorted hurdles facing working-class families, in particular, who rely on that care.

Her workers—as devoted to kids as they are—have rarely complained about minimal wages. They know how childcare center proprietors too often face difficult financial choices. How might she possibly bump up pay for those deserving workers, while also paying rent and shelling out for kiddie blankets, toys, tools for learning, meals, and the other costs of caring for 95 preschoolers on her center’s roster?

This has “made me a fighter,” says Courtney, who, during some years, didn’t pay herself a salary.

Fighting for rights includes coalition building among non-unionized groups.

Courney’s been battling on behalf of her staff and the families they serve as a member of Kids Count on Us (KCOU), a statewide coalition made up of community-based childcare centers and their employees. The coalition is backed by the Workers Confluence Fund of Minnesota. A Foundation grantee, Confluence is advancing equity and justice by supporting grassroots groups such as KCOU.

Childcare workers who work for Courtney and others are pioneers in what, some observers say, is a national push toward prioritizing our children, the parents who require childcare subsidies, and childcare employees who are there when the parents are not.

Confluence provides funding and also coaching on how to build public campaigns for workplace equity and better, livable wages for lower-wage employees. It also helps build concrete links to labor unions, such as Education Minnesota. That union, representing teachers and other school employees, is backed by KCOU in its winning efforts for record-setting childcare funding.

Support for KCOU is part of Confluence’s broader effort to build the capacity and advocacy skills of non-union, low-income employees. In addition to such grassroots coalitions as KCOU, Confluence also provides funding and technical assistance to groups known as worker centers, established and run by low-wage employees and primarily serving immigrants, rural residents, and urban people of color.

Neither worker centers nor grassroots groups, such as KCOU, have the same bargaining power and other legal protections as unions. Yet, KCOU and Minnesota’s worker centers have been swaying state lawmakers and other stakeholders in some remarkable, innovative ways.

Childcare worker Amril Samatar, who is active with KCOU. Photo courtesy of KCOU.

Workers play a role in policy affecting themselves, families, and communities.

An early milestone in Courtney’s self-styled fight for childcare workers and families was the day she sat in the balcony of the Minnesota House of Representatives. A series of childcare proposals was being considered. As she waited and listened to the debate, she emailed the legislator whose district includes Esko, the town of 2,080 people that is home to her center, Mini Mos.

“The legislator wrote back,” says Courtney, whose center also serves families from several nearby municipalities, “and he said, ‘Are you here? Okay, let’s meet.’ So, I went down . . . and we talked.”

“It’s a major triumph that workers who once thought they had no right to speak up are, with Confluence’s assistance, making themselves heard,” says Jen Racho, a Foundation program officer. “Not only are they changing things for the better for themselves, their families, and their communities. They are also shining a light on the unjust structure of our economy that pays unlivable wages to those who care for our children and loved ones.”

Lydia Boerboom, lead organizer for KCOU, accompanied a nervous Courtney as she headed from that statehouse balcony toward the legislator she’d texted. Watching grassroots organizers proceed with a growing awareness that elected officials are supposed to be public servants, charged with abiding the public’s wishes, has been gratifying. It’s been empowering.

Courtney did not persuade the legislator to vote for that funding. But she did make herself and that coalition known to him, which also matters. And she made public the fact that he refused to support a major sector of his constituents.

“Not only are they [childcare workers] changing things for the better for themselves, their families, and their communities. They are also shining a light on the unjust structure of our economy that pays unlivable wages to those who care for our children and loved ones.”

Jen Racho
Program Officer, Northwest Area Foundation
Workers using their own voices help build power—and change.

KCOU’s lobbying helped persuade the Minnesota Legislature this year to approve the historic surge in childcare funding that will cover new hiring of childcare workers at higher salaries. It also will maintain income-based childcare subsidies for needy families that were instituted during the pandemic—subsidies that some lawmakers had hoped to end.

In fact, those subsidies will remain at levels significantly higher than before the pandemic to address what many see as an ongoing lack of affordable childcare for families with comparatively fewer resources.

Those triumphs were outcomes of Confluence-backed efforts of KCOU. As that coalition continues its conversations and collaborations with labor leaders, says Jilian Clearman, Confluence’s fundraising director, it’s deciding what the coalition will look like going forward.

“What they’ve accomplished is huge,” says Jilian. “They may continue in their current advocacy model or form a worker center to offer more direct support to childcare workers. A subset of these workers may even decide to pursue unionizing.” 

KCOU’s lobbying helped persuade the Minnesota Legislature this year to approve the historic surge in childcare funding that will cover new hiring of childcare workers at higher salaries. It also will maintain income-based childcare subsidies for needy families.

Repeating lead organizer Lydia Boerboom’s description of childcare workers’ long-standing wage struggles, Jilian continues, “Lydia put it this way: ‘A lot of people want to make a career in childcare, early childcare. They’re devoted to it. But if the McDonald’s down the street is paying several dollars more an hour than the childcare center, then McDonald’s is where those workers might end up.’”

“Plus,” Jilian adds, “childcare centers are shutting down—in cities and especially in small towns. Economically, they couldn’t keep going. Also, there are parents out there who are not in the workforce—but who want to be working—because they can’t earn enough to justify paying for childcare. In so many ways, the new funding that Kids Count on Us helped create is a big, big relief.”

Lydia Boerboom, KCOU, (far left) sitting with participants connecting during a post-legislative session event co-hosted by Confluence and the McKnight Foundation. Photo courtesy of the McKnight Foundation.

Although victories provide momentum, the fight for justice for workers and families continues.

Despite KCOU’s success, other locales remain in a childcare crisis that demands an ongoing fight for justice.

Launched in early 2023, the federal National Database on Childcare Prices found that, across 2,360 counties in 47 states, childcare costs consumed as much as 20 percent of household income. A Century Foundation analysis concluded that 3.2 million children may be without care as pandemic childcare aid evaporates.

Childcare workers who work for Courtney and others are pioneers in what, some observers say, is a national push toward prioritizing our children, the parents who require childcare subsidies, and childcare employees who are there when the parents are not.

“People stick with this because the work is deeply emotional and fulfilling. They are learning that they deserve so much better. And that’s what this organizing is all about.”

Lydia Boerboom
Lead Organizer, KCOU

“We have these core team meetings every other week of childcare workers who are our leaders,” says Lydia Boerboom, who was a year out of college and earning $7.25 an hour as a childcare center teacher in 2019, when she swapped that job for her current one.

“It is not me deciding what our policy agenda is, it’s them,” adds Lydia, lauding what she calls a growing sense of worth among in-home and center-based childcare workers who are KCOU members.

“You don’t do this because you get paid so well,” she adds. “But people stick with this because the work is deeply emotional and fulfilling. They are learning that they deserve so much better. And that’s what this organizing is all about.”

Read the first blog in this series:

Photo top: Lydia Boerboom, KCOU lead organizer (kneeling front) with KCOU supporters. Photo courtesy of KCOU.

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