In statewide voting, early learning teachers and staff at EPIC (Enterprise for Progress in the Community) voted 165 to 54 last week to join SEIU Local 925 (Service Employees International Union).
"We are so excited about this!" says Cindy Ramales, a teacher at EPIC's Prosser site. "We really feel this will help us make gains and keep the best staff at EPIC so we can provide the highest quality 'head start' for the children we serve."
EPIC provides early childhood services at sites throughout Central Washington, including Yakima, Sunnyside, Prosser, East Wenatchee and Bridgeport/Brewster.
New union members include EPIC teaching staff, bus drivers, food service workers, custodians and family support workers. The newly unionized group consists of more than 300 EPIC employees.
The union membership takes effect immediately, but it will likely be January 2009 before details are ironed out.
That's according to Robin Kelson of Seattle, a communications director for the union.
"The next step is to sit down with EPIC and union employees to hammer out a contract," she said. The process will include a survey to find out what EPIC employees feel are the top issues, electing officers and deciding upon union dues.
"In terms of the time line, I'm anticipating we won't sit at the bargaining table until January," Kelson said. Union dues, she noted, won't be paid until employees have a contract in hand.
As far as why EPIC employees opted to join the union, Kelson observed, "I think in a nutshell they work with these head start kids all day and they felt with the wages and benefits out there, there's, a lot of staff turnover and it affects the quality of care they're able to give." She added that the impact is felt by the students.
"Continuity of care is number one when it comes to working with children," she said. "If we can raise wages and benefits, we can keep good staff and in turn offer better care for the kids."
Kelson noted the move also gives employees "more voice in the organization."
SEIU represents 15,000 head start teachers and staff nationally, and SEIU Local 925 represents 10,000 family child care providers in Washington state.