Shocked by high turnover and minimal wages at their daughter’s Brooklyn preschool, Ryan and Rebekah Weiner went to bat for the beleaguered workers. They reached out to the UFT, which now represents the 35-member teaching and support staff as it begins the first round in contract negotiations.
The majority of workers at Bright Horizons in downtown Brooklyn voted to join the union in July, following a bitter and contentious campaign against the for-profit national chain of early childhood schools valued at $4 billion with 22 sites in New York City.
“This is not a company that is just squeaking by, so it’s outrageous that the teachers who provide such fantastic care for my 2½-year-old are treated so shamefully,” said Ryan Weiner, explaining why he got involved in the battle on behalf of the staff of uncertified, mostly young, minority women.
Beyond salaries barely above minimum wage that force staffers to find second jobs or go on food stamps, Weiner discovered that while other workers may look forward to Christmas bonuses, Bright Horizons teachers are frequently sent home without pay when enrollment temporarily drops during the holidays.
Weiner, who recruited other parents to help in the union campaign, won support from the NAACP and local politicians and was featured on CBS, but he said he was “brushed off” by the Bright Horizons’ management. Instead, he said, a cadre of officers brought in from company headquarters in Massachusetts ordered small group and one-on-one meetings with workers at his daughter’s center as scare tactics to intimidate staff and sow discord once the UFT entered the picture. One union activist at the center has been fired and another threatened, he said.
“I never expected the bitterness of the campaign,” Weiner said. “It’s a testament to the courage and perseverance of the staff in the face of such intimidation. I‘m thrilled we won.”
Days before the July 12 election, Bright Horizons tried to stave off defeat by announcing a 10 percent salary increase for center staff. In a June 13 letter to parents explaining a tuition increase, the company noted, “It has become clear we needed to make some significant wage adjustments to more appropriately compensate our talented team here at Adams St.”
“Bright Horizons would have had to meet increased state minimum wage standards of $13 by the end of the year anyway,” said UFT Secretary Howard Schoor, who was involved in the organizing effort. “So they just paid the increase early.”
Contract negotiations, Schoor said, will focus on salaries, benefits and workplace issues and on helping the teaching staff register to begin the process for state certification.
As for the tuition increase, Weiner said he is willing to pay it “if it means that the people who take care of my daughter are paid a fair wage.”
A lawyer, with union ties — his father was a teacher and his mother a school secretary — Weiner asked, “Who would not want to join a union?”