Harriet Sherwood talks to Lorraine Huddle
STATE NURSERIES are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The inadequate provision which existed this time a year ago has been decimated as part of the Government’s cuts in public spending.
Most unions have negotiated maternity rights in the last five years. These vary considerably, but allow mothers the right to return to their jobs having had a child-although the Tory Employment Bill plans to change that in some workplaces. This right is useless unless some kind of childcare for the under fives is provided.
Inadequate state provision has led some unions to negotiate for workplace nurseries. Criticism of this kind of childcare is strong-from both trade unionists and employers. Trade unionists have argued that it is the state’s responsibility to provide nurseries, and that workplace nurseries tie parents to jobs. Employers have also said that it is the state’s job to provide childcare, but for a different reason: they don’t want the respon- sibility, financial or otherwise. But for many working mothers, or would-be mothers, the chance of a workplace nursery is the only chance they have.
In 1975 (the latest available figures) there were 90 workplace nurseries, “providing places for 2,571 children-less than one in a hundred of under-fives.
Kingsway Children’s Centre has been open for two and a half years, although negotiations lasted for’ two years before that. The idea was to set up a workplace nursery for the children of trade union workers in the area. although now NALGO is the only trade union employer involved.
Lorraine Huddle, whose two year old daughter is at the nursery, was involved in the negotiations. ‘l can’t say we needed to fight very hard for the nursery’, she says. ‘The employers were very shrewd-they didn’t want to lose their professional women workers who had decided to have children.
‘Lots of women wanted to have children but even though the Employment Protection Act was in force they couldn’t return to work because there were no child care facilities.’
Estimating demand was a problem. lt’s easy enough to find how many mothers would prefer a workplace nursery to their present arrangements, and how many women are planning to have children in the foreseeable future; but it is impossible to estimate how many mothers do not work because of the lack of facilities.
Kingsway Children’s Centre provides 30 places, and about a third of those are reserved for ‘babies’ (children under two years old). It is run by a committee of staff and parent representatives and is financed partly by the employers, who pay two thirds of the total running costs, and the parents. The fees work :nut to £65 a month for employees, which, as Lorraine points out, is fairly prohibitive for low paid workers.
The nursery is called a children’s centre because it combines day care with education. ‘Most parents agree that their children have learnt skills such as talking and co-ordination at a very early age,’ says Lorraine. ‘The nursery stresses ‘non-sexist education and provides a stimulating environment.’
But the Kingsway nursery is not without problems. A recent blow was the closing of Covent Garden Community Gardens, which was the only decent piece of greenery in that part of London. An office block is being built in its place.
One of the disadvantages of a workplace nursery is the travelling involved. Bringing a two year old into central London in the rush hour can’t be much fun, and Lorraine thinks this is one reason why the demand for places at the Kingsway nursery isn’t as high as expected.
‘Quite honestly l’d rather have my child in a state nursery’, says Lorraine.
‘But l can’t see much possibility of that now. The Tories are bent on chopping nurseries along with hospitals, jobs, housing – the list is endless. You can’t isolate nurseries; fighting for them goes hand in hand with fighting for all the other things we need, and fighting against the whole crazy system by which our society is run.’
The first hurdle, in some workplaces, will be persuading the union to campaign for a nursery at all. The notion that it is ‘outside the union’s scope of work’ is fairly common in some of the traditionally male dominated trade unions. The issue of childcare may need a lot of lobbying from women within the union before negotiations even begin with the employers.
Trying to assess demand can be a problem. lf you use a questionnaire you have to remember that the need for a nursery may also extend to men. It’s impossible to discover what the future demand will be, in terms of mothers who cannot work now because there is no-one to look after the children. But in 1972 37.2 per cent of women who couldn’t work said they would return to work if child care facilities were available.
Most successfully negotiated workplace nurseries are in buildings or rooms which have at one time been nurseries-so it is worth looking out for an empty one.
Many employers are reluctant to take on sole responsibility for providing a nursery, and often the demand is not high enough in one workplace to justify it.
The answer to this is to find out if other unions/workplaces in your area are interested in participating in a scheme.
If the employers agree to setting up a nursery it is important that the union is involved in the organisation and, later. the general administration of the nursery. For example the union should help decide the initial pay of the nursery workers.
If a workplace nursery is not possible because of a scattered workforce, or a suitable location can’t be found, then consider pressing for a nursery/childminder subsidy from the employer.
Most important. a nursery campaign shouldn’t be isolated from a general campaign for better opportunities for women.
Women’s Voice 41, May 1980