Nearly three decades ago, May 1 became a focal point for a national campaign to raise up the needs of the child care workforce. I was among child care teachers nationwide who chose to meld our voices with those of working people across the globe, and our May Day became known as Worthy Wage Day. The mantra of our campaign — Rights, Raises & Respect — needs desperately to be resurrected, especially at this historic moment in our country.
The COVID-19 pandemic is demanding that each of us take stock of what is essential and what we hold dear. When I first heard of all the closures, particularly school closures while child care was expected to remain open, I felt the fire in my belly that brought me into the worthy wage movement so many years ago. Anger continues to fuel my activism. Every day I look for and listen for the child care teacher on those lists of essential workers who are recognized and appreciated; I have to look and listen hard for even a mention.
It is disrespectful to acknowledge the need for child care to serve others, with little if any attention or clear guidance to those providing that care. Are we still so invisible to the larger public? Is anyone even thinking about our rights? The right to a workplace that keeps us safe from harm. The right to health care should we get sick. The right to be engaged in decisions that affect our lives. The right to a living wage in a chosen career. The right to be respected for the essential work of nurturing children and teaching them what loving relationships look like, to say nothing of the essential work of supporting the ability for others to work.
Right now, every family child care provider, child care teacher, and child care center director is facing difficult choices about staying, leaving, opening, closing, re-opening, moving forward, or moving away from this work. And every choice they make will affect every member of your community in some way or another. Worthy Wage advocates must support all their varied decisions with one exception: this workforce cannot choose to keep silent about the choices they make and why.
At the very first Worthy Wage rally in Wisconsin (1992), I proclaimed from the Capitol steps that “our great silence works against us as much as our worthless wages!” While our progress towards “rights, raises, and respect” has indeed been incremental, today people are seeing value in the stories we tell and the passion with which we tell them. They are on the cusp of understanding the intersection of our work and theirs. Our voices are truly important because we literally hold in our arms the potential for a better future. Listen to us.