The failure to recognise the value of care is at the root of a care crisis that results in increased commodification of care in post-welfare western states (1). Childcare remains seen as a constraint to paid work, and continues to be considered low status, low paid and low skilled work. Unionized early years educators’ mobilizations for fair pay in Australia represent an under researched and important vantage point from which to consider how to respond to the inequalities created by the crisis of care. Their mobilizations draw on and revitalize a rich feminist history of contesting the construction of some women as naturally caring and challenge the low value attributed to care.
The discontent of educators who work in nurseries and crèches with pre-school children in Australia has been gaining momentum over the last three years with a nationwide publicity campaign and three nationwide days of action since March 2017 which have gained support from politicians and parents. During the last one, on 5 September 2018, 7000 educators walked out of their jobs affecting 30,000 families across Australia (according to union United Voice (2)). Following the dismissal of their case for Equal Pay to the Fair Work Commission last February, pursued on the grounds that the feminised nature of the sector has contributed to their stalled rates of pay, the walkouts have been attracting more educators each time, who see it as a last resort to make the government listen to their demands. Given the sector is overwhelmingly female dominated (97% according to United Voice), the strikes also protest against the devaluation of what has long been seen as low-skilled women’s work.
I conducted 20 interviews with educators and union activists in New South Wales and Victoria in June 2018, as well as visits to three children’s centres and analysis of their online and social media campaign. I learnt a lot from talking with educators who took part in walkouts last year- who ranged from their early 20s to late 50s some. All were increasingly angry at the low wages they receive for educating the next generation. They told me their wages were having a significant impact on their lives; some were delaying having children, having to move back in with parents/friends or were not being able to afford to retire because of their low wages. My research shows that educators and activists are extremely skilled at deploying sophisticated analyses of the devaluation of care labour. The accounts I collected provide a picture of an increasingly politicized and articulate workforce which few studies of the formal childcare sector have highlighted.
The low status of childcare work is mirrored in its location within the margins of the discipline of sociology where its discussion is confined to early years education and childhood studies, with most scholars focusing on documenting the consequences of its increased marketization and professionalization. While the outsourcing of care to less-privileged women remains an ongoing concern of feminist scholarship, there has been insufficient attention paid to how workers in the formal childcare sector mobilize against low pay. My research shows that educators in this formal childcare sector are extremely articulate about the reasons behind the low pay characteristic of their sector.
Love doesn’t pay the bills
Despite the increased professionalization in the sector through credentialization, childcare is still seen as something which women are naturally good at and do out of love which contributes to the low status and low wages characteristic of this sector. The Big Steps campaign for better pay constitutes an important attempt to challenge the devaluation of childcare and women’s work in this sector, yet activists I spoke with argue that it is the enduring social construction of some women as naturally caring that remains the biggest barrier to its success. United Voice have explicitly tackled how the discourse of ‘love’, both loving children and loving one’s job, allows governments to justify low wages. As United Voice’s online video Love doesn’t Pay the Bills describes: ‘As educators, we love our jobs, but some politicians still think we do this job just “for the love of it”. But love doesn’t pay the bills! So last week some fellow educators and I visited our local shopping centre and tried buying our Christmas presents with love.’ This type of action disrupts the public narrative that women do this work out of love, deploying similar rhetoric to the housework and marriage strikes organised in the 1970s.
Everything would Stop
The walkouts need to be located within a long history of feminist movements which have sought to make women’s care work visible by withdrawing their labour-a tradition which is resurging with International Women’s Day Strikes since 2016. Unlike housework strikes and sex strikes where the withholding of women’s labour might result in unclean homes and discontented partners, childcare strikes involve -at least in theory -the threat of abandoned or unsupervised children. Parents were encouraged to keep their children at home and take the day off work in solidarity with educators’ dispute: the labour withdrawn and displaced onto working parents would result in a less productive economy that should make the government take more notice of their demands. Because of the reliance of a significant proportion of the workforce on formal childcare such a strike has the potential to cause significant disruption to the economy. Some respondents expressed desire to escalate the walkouts to shutting centres for whole days in order to create large scale disruption. As one long term activist imagining a longer strike described ‘Everything would stop, the whole country would shut down, the country works off the sweat on the backs of women’. Others were conscious of sustaining an eight year dispute, and preferred a slower incremental approach to mobilization. For those who were walking out for the first time the potential influence of organised large scale action spurred their commitment to the campaign. In feminist scholarship, such analyses of how care work is central to the reproduction of society are more often attributed to theorists than care workers.
Wiping children’s noses: values beyond value
One of the recurring stories in my interviews were the reaction caused by Australian senator David Leyonheljm that early years’ educators’ job consisted of ‘wiping children’s noses and breaking up fights.’ Most of my participants spoke about the hurt and anger this comment caused and how the overt disdain for their work motivated them to take part in the walkouts. Such public utterances show how the low status afforded to care work continues to provide justification for why it deserves little pay. The symbolic violence caused highlights the harm and collective anger resulting from some women’s work being seen as lacking in value. The devaluation of this type of caring labour -both paid and unpaid-has a long history in Australia and elsewhere of being performed predominantly by lower class and racialized women.
Today whilst the sector has been largely professionalized especially in formal childcare settings, the least well-paid jobs in this sector continue to be filled overwhelmingly by black, migrant and working-class workers. At the heart of the devaluing of childcare work is thus a combination of contempt for particular groups of women and the belief that childcare requires skills women inherently have. Yet Leyonheljm’s insults provided a well-timed opportunity for early years educators to contest the devaluation of their work: they used social media videos and open letters to call him a clueless dinosaur and pointing out his lack of knowledge about the extensive bodies of research that show how state sponsored quality early years education results in more equal societies and well-adjusted children. Both the walkouts and educators’ public responses to Leyonheljm create spaces not completely colonized by capital and conservativism that can represent the expression of values beyond value (Skeggs, 2014: 16). Those mobilizations constitute an example of those designated as improper subjects refusing to internalize the norm that care is of low value. In an increasingly conservative landscape, inflammatory comments like Leyonheljm’s provide further ammunition for politicizing an already discontented workforce.
Selfless carers vs selfish strikers
Some interviewees who were long time activists in this campaign identified that many educators’ investment in being selfless is a significant challenge to them becoming politicized about their work. As one interviewee put it: ‘You know that fear factor is alive and well because you are going to get your tongue cut out in a Facebook group for being selfish for speaking out when what about everybody else, what about the children?.’ They talked of educators’ reluctance to put themselves first in this context, an orientation that is further encouraged through professional development that focuses on children and parents’ needs. For some educators putting children and parents’ needs first comes into conflict with prioritizing their right for fair pay. Increasingly educators are contesting this dichotomy, as one of the directors of children’s centre articulated: ‘we are not just kind ladies who look after children, we believe in our rights’.
The extent to which such strikes can be effectively disruptive and gain further momentum depends partly on deconstructing the idea(l) of the carer as selfless. As Beverley Skeggs’ ethnography of working-class women on care courses in North East England famously documented over twenty years ago, a caring identity constitutes a habitus that gives working-class women one of their only access to respectability (1997). The gendered and classed dimensions of selflessness continues to be a source of tension in this dispute, with some women being expected to think of themselves last. Deconstructing both how the ideal of the selfless carer and how the affective discourse of selflessness functions politically to keep a female workforce docile is necessary for these campaigns to continue growing. This deconstruction is a task which many activists and educators have long been engaged in and are skilled at articulating on various social media platforms, in the national press and to politicians. As more workers in Scotland, Quebec and the US join similar campaigns, their voices are at the forefront of attempts to improve labour rights in this sector which are only recently being listened to by academic and policy makers whose analysis of the care crisis often miss local attempts to contest the devaluation of care. Australian early years educators’ mobilizations powerfully remind us of the significance of collective attempts to revalue care work and constitute important resources for revitalizing contemporary feminist debates about care, class and value.
1. Although United Voice called the national days of action ‘walkouts’ because industrial action can only legally take place during the period of bargaining, the national press widely reported them as ‘childcare strikes’
2. United Voice—previously known as the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union—is one of the largest Trade Unions in Australia and represents 130,000 workers across the care, manufacturing and hospitality industries.
Skeggs, B. (1997) Formations of class & gender: Becoming respectable (Vol. 51). Sage.
Skeggs, B. (2014) Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital? The British Journal of Sociology, 65(1), 1-20.
Maud Perrier is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bristol. She writes and teaches about motherhood, class, care, feminism and neoliberalism. Her co-edited collection with Maria Fannin ‘Refiguring the Postmaternal: Feminist Responses to the Forgetting of the Maternal’ was published by Routledge in 2017.
IMAGE CREDIT: United Voice