Credit: Daniel Lee

Reflecting on a child-care system that offered only patchwork care at ever-rising costs, union leader Sam Nocella asked a simple question to a gathered crowd: “What do we have against our children?”

The year was 1967, and Nocella’s speech kicked off the groundbreaking ceremony of Baltimore’s Hyman Blumberg Child Care Center, the first union-operated child care center to be built in the country. The center was just one of several that would be built by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, a textile workers’ union that represented mostly female employees. The union’s child-care network would grow to become the largest private provider of child-care in the country, according to the union’s own reports.

His question referred to a problem that was only getting worse for working parents: A rising number of women in the workforce was straining the country’s limited child-care supply, which consisted of income-eligible public programs, informal care provided by relatives and neighbors, and private daycare options that often left families jostling for a limited number of pricey slots.

Does any of that sound familiar?

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A half-century later, despite periodic increases in public funding, child-care in the US is once again—or perhaps still—in crisis. Exacerbated by the pandemic, care is both too expensive and in too-short supply to serve the families that need it. Currently, center-based care can cost parents more than $17,000 in major metropolitan areas, or a fifth of median family income, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Even parents who can afford child-care fees face the additional hurdle of accessibility. With 58,000 fewer daycare workers than 2020, the number of child-care seats has dwindled, leaving parents to deal with full enrollments and long waitlists. It’s no wonder that two-thirds of the 2,800 parents recently polled by KinderCare agreed that “there cannot be a fully functional economy without structural child care.”

Without adequate child care, many parents are forced to miss work, scale back schedules, or sit out from the workforce entirely—a situation that financially harms both individual families and our economy at large. A report published earlier this month by ReadyNation, a nonprofit network of business leaders that lobbies for child-focused policies, estimates that businesses take a $12.7 billion hit each year due to employees’ child-care challenges, while the economy at large loses some $57 billion annually in lost wages, productivity, and revenue.

For parents and employers alike, the history of the Amalgamated offers some inspiration for a path forward. It’s a lesson in how labor and management can collaborate to better serve the needs of their workforce, and it offers a workable model for employer-sponsored, on-site child care. But even more so, the union’s actions can serve as a reminder to the private sector that child care as a benefit is an imperfect solution, even as it’s also an essential one—and that employers also have a role to play in building a universal child-care system accessible to all.

By the sixties, the Amalgamated had built a reputation for a brand of social unionism that blended collective bargaining for benefits, direct services to its members, and political advocacy for greater policy change. In the short term, the child-care program was meant to serve an urgent need among working women for consistent, high-quality child care, but in the long term, the centers represented a call to action for the federal government to fulfill a long-neglected obligation to support children and parents.

In front of an audience that included representatives from labor, government, and industry, Nocella made clear that although the union was stepping up, child care wasn’t labor’s responsibility. Instead, the union was “plac[ing] the responsibility where it properly belongs—on the employer and the federal government.” Union leaders weren’t ready to settle for a piecemeal, workplace-by-workplace rollout. Child care was “a problem which can be really met by the government on a nationwide scale,” said Jacob S. Potofsky, the international vice president of the union, in another speech.

When Congress debated the Comprehensive Childcare Act of 1971, which would have created a universal child-care system if not for a veto from President Richard Nixon, Amalgamated representatives and members made the trip to Washington, testifying alongside other labor leaders and advocates.

Unfortunately, both employer-based and public steps forward have been slow. Since 1971, Washington has passed a series of tax breaks, block grants, and ongoing support to Head Start rather than take up universal child-care legislation. In Charter’s recent survey of 507 business leaders, including CHROs, CEOs, CFOs, and their deputies, just 11% of workplaces offer sponsored or subsidized child-care to full-time employees.

Eventually, the Amalgamated, facing an economy increasingly hostile to organized labor, underwent a series of mergers to form UNITE HERE, which currently represents 300,000 workers worldwide, and all of the Amalgamated’s child care centers have since closed or changed ownership.

Today, some of the children who attended the Amalgamated daycare centers when they first opened will soon be eligible for Social Security benefits, yet caregivers are still left to rely on a patchwork system of care. It’s a situation that leaves advocates asking the same kinds of questions Nocella posed over half a century ago: What do we have against our children? And in the absence of government action, who will step up for their caregivers?

For employers looking for ways to meet the needs of working parents in the short term, Charter has previously published a guide for workplaces to support caregivers. But if the rise and fall of the Amalgamated’s child-care network has any lesson to offer, it’s that individual, private-sector actions alone cannot fix our broken child-care marketplace.

For business leaders, that means lending a voice in public-policy debates. As Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America, told Charter in 2021, “The pandemic has clearly shown that companies need to take a stand on public policy… And you need to be part of the conversation.”

The story of Amalgamated underscores just how essential that is. Anything short of a coordinated, public effort—one that includes employers—runs the risk of getting stuck in the same situation of volatile markets that provide too little care at too high a cost for too few families. Breaking the cycle of the past 50 years means building a care infrastructure that will endure for the next 50 and beyond to provide sustained support for children, families, and child-care workers.

Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed 2019 data from ReadyNation to the Center for American Progress. The article has also been updated to reflect current numbers.

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