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City-Funded Preschool Workers Reject New Contract in Blow to Mayor's Agenda

By Amy Zimmer | September 1, 2016 1:57pm
 An image from one of the seven early childhood education centers in East Harlem run by Union Settlement. The organization along with roughly 45 others wrote a letter several months ago to Mayor de Blasio asking for higher wages for its workers.
An image from one of the seven early childhood education centers in East Harlem run by Union Settlement. The organization along with roughly 45 others wrote a letter several months ago to Mayor de Blasio asking for higher wages for its workers.
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Union Settlement

MANHATTAN — Workers at hundreds of city-funded pre-schools serving low-income New Yorkers have voted down a new union-backed contract — in a surprise upset that forced City Hall to cancel a planned victorious press conference, DNAinfo New York has learned.

A group of 220 union members of the Day Care Local 205 — or about 7 percent of the 3,200 membership — voted "no" to a four-year contract that its parent union, DC 1707, wholeheartedly supported, in an emergency meeting Wednesday night. The contract got 158 votes to ratify, according to a tally from union officials.

The contract would have been the first in the past decade to include a raise for day care workers — many of whom have been toiling at poverty-level wages, including subsisting on food stamps.

Many workers hoped that Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has staked his administration on his push for early childhood education, would see the value in their work and ensure they also enjoyed the salary bump that he bestowed on their counterparts in Universal Pre-K.

But the proposed contract would have made certified preschool teachers wait until 2020 to reach current Pre-K teacher levels, and leave many others making minimum wage, members said.

“They have not had a collectively bargained wage increase in over 10 years, and even though they need and deserve higher salaries, they recognized that the increases offered by the city’s negotiators were inadequate," said David Nocenti, executive director of Union Settlement, which is the largest early childhood education provider in East Harlem.

The union’s negotiating team said the proposed contract would enable more members to get health insurance, save their pensions and see raises by as much as 27 percent over four years. But critics said the wage increases for many in the union amounted to very little, a blow to many workers, who are barely getting by.

Nocenti said he was "proud" of the workers and added that he hoped that City Hall would come back with something better.

“Mayor de Blasio has been a great leader in expanding the city’s early childhood education system,” he added, “and so we are hopeful that he will direct his team to go back to the bargaining table and negotiate a fairer contract for the workers.”

Signs of strife were already apparent before Wednesday night's vote, after angry workers took to the streets to distribute fliers and DC Local 205's board members rejected its terms. Still, most insiders thought the members would ratify it, and the de Blasio administration had even scheduled a press conference Thursday to announce the new deal, several sources said.

The head of 1707 had warned its members that voting no on the proposed contract would mean they were voting to strike, but members said they would need to take a vote on whether to strike.

Many workers can’t afford to strike, noted Betty Mendez, a Local 205 board member and assistant teacher at an East Harlem center. Mendez lives in a one-bedroom apartment in The Bronx with her elderly father since she can’t afford to live alone on her $28,000 annual salary.

She said that after 10 years of no raises, to see raises that just brought many up to the minimum wage was a slap in the face given the mayor's rhetoric about the importance of early education.

"This is not a raise. You can make more money in McDonalds,” she added. “I’m glad the membership stood their ground and demanded more. We should be getting more than restaurant workers. It’s shameful."

It was unclear what's next for the union, which has members who work at more than 400 centers across the city serving nearly 40,000 infants and toddlers.

The centers, which are typically open for 10 hours a day, 12 months a year, provide an essential service and community for many working families, members say.

These centers, however, have been struggling to retain staff and build a more experienced workforce because of the low wages and sub-par benefits.

City Hall officials said they believed the proposed contract was fair to workers.

“We are disappointed by last night’s vote,” said de Blasio spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein. “We believe the Day Care Council and 1707 negotiated a fair and innovative agreement with each other that would have amounted to the first comprehensive salary increases since 2006, among other important benefits.”

However, officials emphasized that the city does not directly employ the workers, adding that the deal was hashed out between the union and the employer’s representative, the Day Care Council.

Still, those close to the centers say the administration — which funds the centers' contracts to pay the workers — is actively involved in the process, sending officials to be in the room during negotiations.

Andrea Anthony, of the Day Care Council, said she remained hopeful of reaching a comprehensive package that could work for the members.

“We have to go back and discuss things again with the city and union,” Anthony said.