Jennie Rivera works 10-hour days taking care of children in her lower Manhattan apartment and has never had a paid vacation or earned more than $13,000 a year.
Rivera hopes that will change now that she's cast her lot, along with thousands of other child-care providers here, with the powerful New York City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
New York is one of 11 states where workers like Rivera — not day-care center employees or nannies but child care providers working out of their own homes — are permitted to unionize. Organizers argue improving conditions for these poorly paid workers will translate into better child care options for working parents.
The lopsided pro-union vote during September and October — with 8,382 workers voting to join the United Federation of Teachers, and just 96 voting no — was hailed as the largest successful unionization campaign in the city since the 1960s.
"Finally we have a voice and a place to go for support,'' Rivera said at a union victory rally last month.
According to a 2002 joint study by the Center for the Child Care Workforce and the Human Services Policy Center, there are about 1.8 million home-based child care providers. The category exploded in the 1990s with President Clinton's welfare-reform initiative, which sent poor women into the workplace and provided public funds for other women to take care of their kids.
Legally classified as independent contractors, home-based child care providers can't join unions unless the governor or legislature of their state authorizes them to.
Opponents say allowing the providers to unionize turns them into de facto state employees and can potentially cost the states millions of dollars.
In New York State, former Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, had vetoed a bill giving home-based child care providers the right to unionize, but Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer authorized it in an executive order signed in May.
"These child care providers are some of most vulnerable workers in the state, and Governor Spitzer wanted to give them a greater voice in the decisions that affect their profession,'' said Matt Anderson, a spokesman for Spitzer.
Ten states besides New York have granted union rights to home-based child care workers, and three states — Illinois, Oregon and Washington — have signed statewide contracts with them.
Illinois was the first, signing a three-year contract estimated at $250 million with the Service Employees International Union in December 2005.
The mail-in ballot in New York City means that the UFT will represent some 28,000 home-based child care providers. Now it's up to the union to negotiate a contract with the state for higher pay, health insurance and paid vacations.
At the Oct. 24 victory rally in New York, AFT officials said that unionization would also mean better training for the workers and better care for the children.
"I predict that today we are launching a new era in which the kids who move through elementary and secondary education will be better prepared,'' said AFT Secretary-Treasurer Nat LaCour." Dropout rates will go down. The number of kids who graduate ready to lead productive lives will go up.''
Besides the AFT and SEIU, unions that are organizing home-based providers include the Communications Workers of America and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME and SEIU signed an agreement in 2006 dividing up several states to avoid competing for the same workers.
In Pennsylvania, some 3,700 home-based providers voted Nov. 1 to join the Child Care Providers United, an AFSCME-SEIU joint venture.
"We learned the hard way that it's far better for us to try to work cooperatively than to try to beat each other's brains out,'' said Jim Schmitz, organizing director for AFSCME.
Home-based child care providers are among the nation's lowest-paid workers.
Helen Blank, director of leadership and public policy at the Washington, D.C.-based National Women's Law Center, said that in 2002, the last year for which figures are available, the average annual earnings of self-employed child care workers ranged from $6,209 in New Mexico to $16,367 in Washington.
Eileen Boris, the chairwoman of women's studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said home-based child care workers are following in the footsteps of home health care workers, another group of quasi-public employees — independent contractors paid by the states.
"The lessons that unions learned from organizing home care have been brought to bear on child care,'' she said.
Not everyone applauds unionization for home-based child care workers. Mayor Michael Bloomberg opposed the idea, which he said could cost up to $100 million a year in increased wages and benefits.
Rivera, 38, is licensed to care for up to six children in her Lower East Side housing project named, coincidentally, after American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers.
She is paid per child — $26.50 a day for infants, less for older kids.
During a recent visit, toddlers Christian and Jalyn danced with Rock & Roll Elmo and took toy food items out of the toy refrigerator.
Rivera sounded out the names of the foods — apple, pear, bread — while cuddling 5-month-old Erick on her lap.
Rivera said she hopes unionization will bring health insurance and a pension.
"There's a lot of providers who retired before this happened,'' she said, "and they retired with nothing.''