by Doug Nesbitt
When the New Democratic Party proposed a $15/day national childcare plan this past October, the federal Conservative government replied that a childcare plan was already in place: The Universal Child Care Benefit of $100/month for every child under six. Shortly after the NDP revealed its childcare plan, Harper announced he would raise this monthly benefit to $160 per child under six.
As Harper made these claims, a non-profit Ottawa childcare centre called Tupper Tots was on the verge of bankruptcy. Created by the federal government for the children of federal public service workers in the mid-1990s, Tupper Tots went under on November 28 2014. A dozen people lost their jobs and nearly fifty children and families lost their childcare centre.
How could a childcare centre created for the children of federal workers and sponsored by the federal government go bankrupt? Wasn’t the Universal Child Care Benefit helping? To tell the story of Tupper Tots, RankandFile.ca sat down with Shellie Bird, an Ottawa childcare worker and education officer with CUPE Local 2204, the union representing Tupper Tots workers.
The origins of federal workplace childcare
Like other federal workplace childcare centres, the story of Tupper Tots really begins in the late 1980s. After years of agitation, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, representing most federal public service workers, won federal workplace childcare.
“In 1991,” explains Shellie Bird, “the federal government committed to opening up workplace childcare. Federal departments would sponsor childcare centres in their buildings, covering capital and custodial costs, and rent free. The condition was that 70 percent of spaces would have to be filled by children of federal public sector workers.”
Across the country, over a dozen of these childcare centres opened. In Ottawa, Tupper Tots opened in the mid-1990s in the Sir Charles Tupper Building, and sponsored by Public Workers and Government Services Canada. In 2006, reviews by both the PSAC and the federal government found the childcare program to be working well.
In 2010 everything changed. The federal government, explains Bird, was “telling departments sponsoring childcare that they had to balance their budgets, had to find efficiencies, and it is time to start charging these centres market rent.” Tupper Tots was first Ottawa centre with CUPE 2204 members to be served notice.
“They went from zero [rent] to being charged $230,000 a year for rent for 35 families [at Tupper Tots]. The families at that time were probably paying about $1200/month for their childcare. Tupper Tots was located in the Sir Charles Tupper Building for over a decade. They paid zero rent, had custodial services and all the infrastructure was free. Phones, computers and so on.”
Fight or negotiate?
When the announcement came, CUPE 2204, PSAC and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers got together and wanted to wage a campaign. CUPW was involved because it also used the centre for respite care. “We wanted to run a campaign,” says Bird. “PSAC really wanted to wage a campaign after centres in Winnipeg and down east had closed.” But with Tupper Tots run by a voluntary board of mainly federal public sector workers, the unions deferred to board and parents.
“We were being respectful of what the board and the parents wanted to do. They didn’t want us to run a campaign. They wanted to try and negotiate with another department to take over the sponsoring of childcare. They were off negotiating for eight or nine months and were hopeful they would find other department to come together on that. And so they didn’t want us going out into the public denouncing the federal government. They didn’t want us raising a big stink. They did a little bit of press on it, but not in a going-after-the-federal-government kind of way.”
With austerity imposed in every federal department, no new sponsor was found. Unwilling to put the costs of $230,000 rent and custodial services on 35 families, Tupper Tots was forced out of the Sir Charles Tupper Building.
What followed, explains Bird, was a painful effort to build a new childcare centre. “The board eventually decided to take all their reserve funding and use it. They did a $300,000 renovation at Villa Marconi, a private retirement residence. These are voluntary parents making these decisions.
“They were going to cover additional costs by increasing the number of spaces. So they went from 35 spaces to 60. And they went from paying $230,000 in rent to the federal government, to $100,000 at Villa Marconi. They felt like this was a good, smart move.
“But in the federal buildings, they never worried about filling spaces. They were always full. They had no experience going about filling empty childcare spaces. Villa Marconi is right on the edge of a low income community. They almost doubled their size and had no access to subsidies, and so parents from that community couldn’t afford it. They sat for six months with almost half their spaces empty. They brought many of of the federal sector parents over with them [from the original location] but they weren’t able to attract more to that location.”
When this failed, Tupper Tots asked Andrew Fleck, a large municipal daycare, to take them over. CUPE 2204 represented workers at both sites, so the union sat down to negotiate the wage difference between Tupper Tots and Andrew Fleck childcare workers. “The wage difference between the two was quite substantial,” says Bird, “because at Tupper Tots they did not have access to these [Ontario government] wage grants that is part of our pay equity plan. And so there was about a $9000 difference between workers doing the same job.”
Even with a five year “catch up” plan, the Andrew Fleck and CUPE lawyers said they could not allow workers to sign a document that violated pay equity. With the municipal government refusing to involve itself and help out, the Andrew Fleck effort failed.
Pulling the plug
With not a trace of contempt, Bird believes the board then gave up. “I think they just lost hope. They were demoralized, so they, without telling the union or anyone else, just filed for bankruptcy. I think what they felt like was that every decision we make seems to drive us deeper and deeper into the hole, so it’s time to pull the plug.
“I got a call Friday morning, November 28. Could I come to a meeting after work hours on Friday night because they were going to be telling the staff some difficult news and it would be good to have the union there. The staff know things aren’t good, but the staff thought they would be asked to get rid of janitorial services and have staff cleaning the centre as a way to save money until they got the spaces filled. A layoff or two. That’s what they were expecting.
“They’re sitting amongst the activity tables at the end of a play day. And the parents are standing at the front of the room with tears coming down their faces and a bank of people no one knows – the trustees from the bankruptcy – so the parents in tears told them: as of now they would not have a job at Tupper Tots, that they filed for bankruptcy, and you have ten minutes to get your personal belongings out of here.”
Bird reserves her scorn for the federal and municipal government. “The federal government started it with stepping away from its policy, increasing rents that substantially. [They] forced their own employees to deal with this mess. And then the city wouldn’t come in and get them the subsidies so that they could deliver in low income communities.
“We were very angry at both levels of government. So right now, what we’ve got is an empty daycare centre at the Sir Charles Tupper Building that has sat vacant for two years. The Tupper Tots sign is still in the window. Now we’ve got Villa Marconi Tupper Tots sitting vacant.
“Forty-eight families lost their childcare. Twelve staff lost their jobs. We had a situation where a husband and wife – where the husband was the cook at the centre, the wife was a teacher. They both lost theirs. We had a situation where a member was staff at the centre and he was a single father and his child had a space there. He lost his job and his childcare.”
The story of Tupper Tots is just one aspect of a side of the complex but very real shortcomings of childcare centres in Canada. The federal government is bankrupting actually existing childcare centres while claiming the Universal Child Care Benefit is a federal childcare plan. Efficiency is demanded of federal department spending, but the millions of monthly “child care” cheques is the definition of inefficiency. Thousands of workers are being paid poverty wages for a profession that is in incredible demand by parents, but financially out of reach for working parents who need it most.