Type
Essay
Category
Fair Australia Prize

FAP winner – Essay: Care and cooperativism in early childhood

Since beginning work as an early childhood educator two years ago, I have been struck by the psychological difficulties of performing work that is poorly paid and poorly respected, but that encompasses big, life-giving acts of care, intimacy, warmth, and even love. An emotive dissonance, as Arlie Hochschild would call it. I have been frustrated by the ways in which the supposed feminine, non-technical nature of these life-giving acts is seen as justification for the lack of remuneration, the assumption being: that which is natural is free, or at least cheap. And further, I have been frustrated that in order to agitate for higher wages, early childhood activists have avoided talking of care and intimacy, instead emphasising the technical and bureaucratic aspects of our work.

While recently reading three books concurrently (and admittedly, haphazardly) it became clear to me that I was looking for something; for permission, perhaps, to believe that working people can harness their many skills and ideas in the realisation of cooperative, non-alienated forms of labour organisation. Maybe I was looking for something to sweeten the long, slow slog for higher wages and greater respect, particularly given the Fair Work Commission’s recent dismissal of our union’s equal pay case for early childhood educators. I collected quotes like a bowerbird, feeling pleased at curating them in my notebook:

If to change ourselves is to change our worlds, and the relation is reciprocal, then the project of history making is never a distant one but always right here, on the borders of our sensing, thinking, feeling, moving bodies. – A Postcapitalist Politics, JK Gibson-Graham

… while thinking and action are not the same, they must continuously return to each other for renewal. – Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, Kristin Ross

If we are made by capitalism’s ecology, then we can be remade only as we in turn practice new ways of producing and caring for one another together, a praxis of redoing, rethinking, reliving our most basic relations. – A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, Raj Patel and Jason C Moore

My scattershot reading of Gibson-Graham, Ross, and Patel and Moore offered these questions: What might it mean to own your labour, to have power over your own surplus, to set the terms of your own employment, particularly in care work?1 What might it mean for both educator self-perception and the quality of the relationships and pedagogy enacted between adults and children? How might educators collectively decide to distribute their own surplus in the service of social justice? Would a more collaborative form of labour organisation mitigate the emotive dissonance of selling labour cheaply for work that involves intimacy, intuition, and bodily strain?

It seems to me that care work is an ideal place to experiment with new, non-capitalistic economic subjectivities and forms of labour organisation. As pointed out by others2, care work defies the logic of liberalism, in which consumers are presumed to be rational, autonomous, public, efficient and masculine. Care work makes visible the reliance we have on others; our inescapable interdependence. Young children in particular present a profound challenge to liberal notions of the individual subject. Children are not autonomous, not efficient, not economically calculating, and their choices are often judged to be irrational, at least by adults. They are clearly reliant on others to grow and thrive, and evidently shaped by their families, communities and cultures. Children show up the neoliberal ideals of even playing fields and self-sufficient individuals for what they are: false foundational myths. It seems to me that capitalist modes of organising workers and consumers around principles of efficiency, extraction and hierarchy are an ill fit for work that is rooted in slow and unpredictable processes of listening, reflecting, relationship-building, and play.

Australian early childhood curriculum documents emphasise the importance of relationships for young children’s development and wellbeing. For example, the national Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) states that educators should ‘support children’s secure attachment through consistent and warm nurturing relationships,’ and be ‘emotionally available … support[ing] children’s expression of their thoughts and feelings.’ While most educators I know are wonderful at this, the institutional infrastructure does not support these practices. Low wages lead to high turnover, a casualised workforce creates job insecurity, and low respect pushes workers to ‘upgrade’ to other occupations. This is not to suggest that early childhood educators don’t offer high quality education and care, just that they tend to do so against all odds.

Aside from a general distaste for the extractive, degrading and individualising effects of late capitalism, the specific ill fit of capitalism with care work has led me to consider the potential for worker-owned cooperatives in early childhood. A workplace founded on solidarity and mutualism might more easily accommodate the dignity and personhood of both educators and children, as well as support the relationships and reciprocity between them. Pedagogies based in relationships and principles of social justice would be upheld by the institutional structure surrounding them, rather than compromised by it. There is also the obvious appeal of setting the terms of one’s own work, the prospect of higher wages, and the security of being a worker-owner. Additionally, I believe the psychological effects could be huge. Through the praxis of organising care work differently, educators might begin to sense and feel the world differently too.

The majority of educators I know love their job and care deeply for the children in their care – children with whom they spend up to forty hours a week. At times, though, staffroom conversations reveal a sense of negative self-perception, a perception fed by the idea that our work is the least worthy of the educational careers. As someone studying a Master of Teaching, someone whose middle-classness is inscribed in my clothing, my manner of speech and my weekend activities, I am often asked, slightly disbelievingly: ‘So you want to work in early childhood? Why don’t you do primary school or high school? Do you like it here?’ The assumption is that those who have the opportunity and the English language skills would sensibly choose primary or high school over early childhood, especially given the wage differential between the sectors.

There is also the fact that a number of my colleagues were social workers, biologists, art teachers and university students in their home countries, but were unable to continue their career trajectories in Australia due to language barriers and Australia’s exorbitant international-student fees. Framed negatively, the diverse and impressive skill sets of my colleagues can be perceived as lost opportunities, particularly in the context of regular dismissive treatment of early childhood professionals by media commentators, politicians, the Fair Work Commission, the Productivity Commission, and the general public. The confluence of economic and psychological support afforded by an early childhood worker co-op could challenge this negative self-perception, with workers given the space to create their own ideas about the value and nature of their work.

 

In her book on the Paris Commune, Ross looks beyond the tragedy of the Communards’ brutal defeat and instead analyses how the experience of the Commune was carried forward through the thinking, writing and action of Communard exiles, as well as fellow travellers such as Marx, Kropotkin and William Morris. In London and Geneva, the Communards’ brief experience of a society based on mutualism, international solidarity and free association generated new theoretical possibilities and modes of praxis. As Marx himself stated, the importance of the Commune was its working existence: the lived experience of a society in which the tyranny of state power was rejected, in which distinctions between art and industry were broken down, in which the holistic wellbeing of all citizens was at the heart of structuring life and work, and in which international solidarity took precedence over parochialism or separatism.

Relevant to this discussion of care work, it is interesting to note that the Communards, in the brief three months of their control of Paris, established crèches in working-class areas and mandated equal salaries for male and female school teachers. Women working in the crèches cycled through different tasks each day to avoid boredom or lethargy. While today such a move would be rejected on account of its potential to jeopardise trust, attachment and continuity of learning, it is evident that the Communards gave equal attention to the wellbeing of both workers and children. A poster on the wall of the fourth arrondissement declared: ‘To teach the child to love and respect others; to inspire in him the love of justice; to teach him as well that his instruction is undertaken in view of the interests of everyone: these are the moral principles on which henceforth communal education will be based.’ In view of the interests of everyone. This is the goal.

There are also case studies closer to home, closer to our late capitalist era. In Sydney, for example, a worker-owned co-op providing aged care and NDIS services was established in 2013 by Robyn Kaczmarek. Having experienced the stress and disillusionment of being part of a precarious, casualised and isolated workforce, Robyn realised that the system she was working within served neither worker nor client. Inspired by home care cooperatives in the USA and the UK and attracted to the idea of being a decision-maker within a collaborative organisation, Robyn started The Cooperative Life with an initial four other members. Today, approximately half of the co-op’s seventy-five employees are member-owners, among whom any surplus is divided at the end of the year. Robyn described the evolution of the co-op as open-ended, a process of constant learning in response to new circumstances and challenges. For members, this learning process has included slowly taking on the role of owner as well as worker, through participation in workers’ councils and education programs that Robyn has designed. Discussions about what constitutes high quality care are ongoing within the organisation. An offhand comment Robyn made during our conversation – ‘I didn’t know that until I knew it’ – seemed to hint at the possibilities enabled by projects that cut against the grain.

In Brooklyn, New York, the Beyond Care Childcare Cooperative (BCCC) is a cooperative providing in-home childcare services for families. Started in 2008 by a group of seventeen immigrant women, most of whom had been working in poorly paid, stressful and isolating domestic and hospitality jobs, the co-op has now grown to a group of forty-two member-owners. Through monthly member meetings and various working groups, the women collectively negotiate the terms and conditions of their work, and organise and participate in training workshops. Research done by the Center for Family Life found that after becoming member owners of BCCC, women reported a 58 per cent increase in hourly wages, less isolation and stress, and a heightened sense of wellbeing due to their ability to connect and organise with other childcare workers. Better pay and conditions also meant that women were able to spend less time working and more time with their own families. Many member owners also participate in advocacy organisations such as Domestic Workers United and the National Alliance of Domestic Workers, organisations that agitate for better conditions for domestic workers, as well as for broader social justice issues like the abolition of ICE.

 

The establishment of one, or perhaps hundreds, of worker-owned early childhood co-ops would not mean the abandonment of our established unions or ongoing campaigns; hopefully it would mean the establishment of a stronger base from which to fight. I am impatient, though, and keen to enter into a new dialectic of the lived and conceived, as Henry Lefebvre would have it. Through enacting alternative economic projects, we might generate the theory that enables a continuation of the project for socially just early childhood education and care.

Who better to undertake this project than early childhood educators? The process of thinking and acting beyond established templates is messy, unpredictable, stressful, imperfect, eternally unfolding – much like our day-to-day work. We are used to throwing pre-conceived ideas out of windows, letting go of fixed outcomes, and listening closely to the ideas of those who are regularly overlooked. Our work does not fit neatly into existing rubrics of education, and even less so into the logic of profit-making and extraction. Weaving reciprocity, solidarity and cooperation into the fabric of our workplaces has the potential to uphold the dignity of both child and worker, and to function as a new vantage point from which we might begin to define and shape our work for ourselves.

 

Endnotes

1  I use the word care here defiantly, in an effort to re-centre the relational and emotional aspects of work with young children, to reject the logic that says that in order to raise ourselves up we need to assertively align ourselves with harder, more technical concepts of education. Our work is both education and care; the distinction is blurry and un-useful.

2  Matthew, RA & Bransburg, V, ‘Democratizing caring labor: The promise of community-based, worker-owned childcare cooperatives’, Affilia, vol. 32,  issue 1, 2017, pp. 10–23.

 

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Miriam Jones is a musician and early childhood educator living and working on Wangal and Gadigal land.

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