Sometimes Just Existing is a Win: On the TAP Head Start Workers Committee


This reportback was written by an anonymous member of the TAP Head Start Workers Committee


A year ago, in January 2021, preschool workers at TAP Head Start in Roanoke, VA initiated our first workplace struggle.

We were organizing for some basic, decent working conditions (the first two of which were a long time coming, and the third was a more recent issue): livable wages, paid maternity leave, and a hostility-free work environment.

After around 3 months of actively struggling with the CEO to meet with our workers committee to discuss and address our concerns and seeming to get nowhere, our energy (and some workers’ faith) started to fade and unfortunately our struggle simmered down to a pause.

The results of our efforts are difficult to determine, but the following is an attempt to assess and learn from what happened. Though we didn’t outright win any of our demands, some of our concerns did end up getting addressed, which I don’t think would’ve happened if we hadn’t struggled.

The Active Struggle

For anyone unfamiliar, we sent a petition to the CEO of the non-profit we work for in early January 2021 and asked she meet with our committee to discuss it. She ignored our requests for weeks so we went public and announced our existence on Dr. King Day.

She and upper management then held what seemed to be a pacification-type captive audience (mandatory) meeting with all workers where they didn’t directly mention our committee or petition, but implied they were on our (the workers’) side, their hands were tied regarding wages, and that we already have good benefits.

In late January the CEO held a second more aggressive, and particularly anti-union/anti-communist captive audience meeting with all workers where she seemed to paint a picture that there’s no way for the least-paid of us to get higher wages with our funding and budget, that our jobs might be at risk for organizing, and that two local working-class organizations who supported our committee (the only groups to do so) were communist or revolutionary and we shouldn’t want to be associated with that.

This second meeting seemed to instill some fear and/or sense of hopelessness in some of us, and afterwards around 10 workers left our committee.

In February and March of ’21 we published testimonies from workers to help publicly illustrate some of our specific concerns, including not having paid maternity leave and postpartum struggles back at work, being fired at the beginning of Covid-19 after voicing concerns, and other examples of the hostile work environment some of us have faced.

We emailed the CEO a few more times asking for a meeting with her and our committee. She eventually responded though basically dodged our request, saying her “doors are always open” while knowing workers could only go to her office individually due to TAP’s Covid-19 policy.

By the end of March, after 3 months of active struggle, our morale had gotten fairly low, and despite some ideas a couple of us had to keep fighting, there was little to no support among coworkers to take further actions so conversation and planning around our concerns unfortunately died down.

Results & Concessions

In April & May of ’21, once we had basically stopped actively pushing for our demands, upper management started giving us little things. The first was the classic pizza party that management in all companies are renowned for doing (though in this instance it was lunch from a sandwich spot).

The second concession was a paid-day off for all workers. The third was an $850 bonus for all workers, which to note has never happened in the past as our program is grant-funded and we work for a non-profit so there’s never extra money for bonuses in our budget.

Of course management presented these things as coming from the newly created “Staff Appreciation Committee” (which the CEO ironically created at the end of the anti-communist captive audience meeting in an effort to co-opt workers) or as simply shows of appreciation for us. The director told some of us that the bonuses came about because they found a small, one-time grant that they were able to use for that.

Also, a couple of the supervisors who some of us felt created a hostile work environment left TAP (we don’t know if they quit or were fired), and things on that front seem to have generally improved for the time being. While we don’t want to claim any easy victories, I do think these were the indirect result of us organizing.

Lastly, the Virginia legislature ended up finally raising the state’s minimum wage, which has been stuck at the federal level of $7.25/hr since 2009. So in May of ’21 minimum wage in VA went up to $9.50/hr, and as of January this year it’s now gone up to $11/hr. This is still not a livable wage by any means, but obviously a much-needed increase that all businesses in VA including TAP have to abide by.

Lessons

In terms of what worked in our favor and/or good practices:

  1. One-on-Ones – a couple of us individually met with coworkers off-the-clock and surveyed their concerns and level of interest before adding them to the workers committee to try to establish a baseline level of trust
  2. Independence – we wanted to get our issues addressed ourselves so we decided to organize independently which allowed the most freedom and autonomy of action, and also fostered our self-reliance and empowerment. We weren’t looking for someone else to come fix our problems for us and weren’t necessarily trying to join one of the few local business unions (whose effectiveness in getting workers what they need is questionable), though the CEO and most likely TAP’s lawyers assumed we were
  3. Critical Mass – we had around 20% of all workers (43 out of around 220) sign our petition, which was significant and they couldn’t just ignore us, but we also obviously would’ve been stronger and more effective if we had at least half or more of us (which is difficult as we’re spread out in around 12 different preschool centers)
  4. Surprise – we were covert and kept our organizing on the hush until there was consensus and energy to take action
  5. Researching Precedents – we did some surface-level research to see if Head Start workers had ever organized elsewhere at any point in time, and were able to find 7-8 examples of such which provided some inspiration that we weren’t alone and that taking action is possible, even for preschool workers in a grant-funded program
  6. Sharing Wage Info – we made a form and spreadsheet to anonymously share what each of us is paid and compare it with each other so we could know who was being way underpaid for the same job, who was on government assistance, etc. Unfortunately some folks seemed hesitant to participate. This could still be a useful thing to periodically do

In terms of what worked against us or what we could’ve done better:

  1. Inexperience – this was the first time that most if not all of us had taken any collective action against bosses, and though we did our best to prepare each other for what possible retaliation or reactions the bosses might have, we weren’t prepared for how to handle the captive audience meetings
  2. Loose Bonds – though some of us do hang out together outside of work, many of us don’t. We also have high turnover, so getting new coworkers frequently (often times where people don’t plan to stay long) makes it difficult to form tight bonds together. We should spend more time together with coworkers outside of work to be tighter as a group
  3. High Turnover – some of us have worked there for a while, but many coworkers come and go fairly often. In the months between then and now a number of workers quit: a few people in our committee found better-paying jobs, and once the Covid vaccine mandate came into place for TAP in October of ‘21 around 40 workers who didn’t want to get vaccinated either quit or were fired due to that
  4. Lack of Commitment & Participation – some of us weren’t the most committed to the amount of organizing needed to be effective. Whether this was due to our inexperience and people expecting not to have to fight, or lack of trust from loose bonds between coworkers, or not having enough time outside of work to do so, or something else it’s hard to tell, but to have a strong organization we need strong commitment & participation
  5. Procrastination – we formed our committee long before sending the petition (in fact our petition was drafted almost a year before that, but ebbs & flows in coworkers’ discontent combined with some folks quitting, and then Covid, kept throwing off our organizing). We may’ve taken too long to take action and lost some enthusiasm or faith because of this
  6. Systemic Patriarchy – patriarchal societies like ours deem certain types of work to be “women’s work”, especially child care, as a way to justify more extremely exploiting the people who do them. This is then ingrained in all of our minds so that we see it as normal and expect to be paid less, taken advantage of more, etc. TAP Head Start’s workforce is almost all women
  7. We’re A Family-ism – most businesses try to create a false culture that it’s a family not a business. Non-profits, especially in the education field, do this even moreso as their missions are to improve the community in some type of way, which is then used to take advantage of workers’ kindness & compassion, getting us to take on more work for little or even no compensation because we care about the people we serve and helping our “team” or “family”

Despite not having any clear direct victories, I’d say the overall result of us organizing is fairly positive and that it was completely worthwhile. No workers were fired because of us organizing (which is illegal for companies to do anyways).

We finally stood up for ourselves – this was the first time workers at TAP had collectively waged a struggle in decades (we heard from some elder coworkers that there had been some type of a union at TAP Head Start in the late 90s). Also, we are the *only* independent workers committee in the Roanoke area as far as we know. Both of these things are historic and no small feat.

This should give us all inspiration. If preschool workers – with no experience in workplace organizing, at a non-profit that has major constraints by being grant-funded and that doesn’t make hundreds of millions or have the greediest of CEOs or the worst conditions on-the-job – can organize ourselves to take collective action, any workers in Roanoke can. If you don’t fight you won’t win, and sometimes just existing together is a win.

All power to the people

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