For two days in early August, parents and workers from all three Growing Seeds Learning Community locations in the Portland area — including the one located in the northwest corner of Reed’s campus — went on strike after two years of failed negotiations with their employer over a number of unsettled grievances, and successfully obtained and ratified a new contract which met their concerns. The members of Growing Seeds Workers Union demanded higher pay, better benefits and union security, and more effective staff hiring and training processes.
Growing Seeds Learning Community is a for-profit preschooling and child care program local to Portland. It was opened in 2o15, after Reed community-members had long voiced complaints over a lack of affordable child care around Reed. Faculty, staff, and students have found the nearby Crystal Springs location to be a vital resource; its workers provide necessary care for children to attend during their parents’ working hours. A Reed Magazine article from 2015 quotes students praising Crystal Springs for its model of “intrinsically motivated learning” and for prompting them to contemplate how to “contribute to the world in a meaningful way.”
But now, over six years onward, it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses for Growing Seeds. In an open letter of demands and grievances, members of the Growing Seeds Workers Union highlighted the need for centers to be fully staffed and identified problems with hiring and retention as the primary causes of low staff levels. The letter claimed that even before COVID, Growing Seeds’s meager staffing was a common complaint, and today the number of staff is “much lower than it was in March 2020.” Consequently, “staff are burning out due to the extra burden.” This burden, the letter said, is only increased by Growing Seeds’s uncompetitive pay and lackluster benefits, which have persisted despite the high rates Growing Seeds charges compared to similar organizations — tuition at Growing Seeds has now risen to up to $1930 per month, plus an additional $250 enrollment fee. All of this has caused excessive “exhaustion and turnover” which have demoralized staff, made Growing Seeds unattractive to new hires, and has been “to the detriment of [staff] relationships with children and the quality of care and education they deserve.” Beyond this, workers presented their concerns that a lack of training kept children from receiving an education that upheld the school’s core philosophies, especially in cases where they differ drastically from what staff may have learned in other facilities. Their letter criticizes the implementation of new staff as nothing more than “ratio support right when they begin.”
Prior to COVID, high rates of turnover were already common in the child care industry. In 2019, Oregon State University released a report stating that 24% of the prior years’ child care workers had left their jobs by the following year. Many cite poor wages and benefits, as well as workplace mismanagement.
Laura Graham, Director of the Crystal Springs location since August of 2022, spoke with the Quest about her thoughts on the strike. She disputed claims that the staff’s day-and-a-half training was inadequate, noting that “We don’t expect perfection going in.” And while she agreed that staff shortages mean greater stress for those who remain, she also blamed teachers for not coming in. “If one to three teachers call out it’s definitely going to impact how the rest of the day is going to go for the teachers that are here,” Graham said, “because while we have a full support staff, there’s only so many directions we can spread those support teachers.” Graham’s claim that “calling out” is a major cause of staffing shortages is criticized by GSWU in their letter as an inadequate explanation of a problem with management.
Graham also claimed that high turnover can be attributed to a problem of employees “using [childcare work] as a jumping off point” to careers in public school or counseling. According to OSU, “leavers” of childcare jobs are on average several years younger than “stayers,” though high wages do correspond more closely with higher rates of retention. Despite the position of Growing Seeds director being the highest-paid, in the past six years four directors have rotated through the Crystal Springs location; Laura Graham was only hired a month ago in August. Graham acknowledges her position, an “already stressful job,” as a reason for previous turnover.
Both Graham and GSWU value the families they serve. In June of 2022, Nat Glitsch, an organizer for Growing Seeds, went on the OPB talk show “Think Out Loud” along with two other Portland child-care workers to share their experiences unionizing. He explained that during COVID, Glitsch and the other members of GSWU began to do research into 0rganizing a union and soon discovered something unique to the field of childcare. “Families are such intense stakeholders,” he said, “We wanted to make sure that our unionizing effort didn’t scare families.” This relationship caused GSWU to tread carefully at first, but also encouraged them to organize events to engage with the families and promote continuity and mutual understanding.
Graham, however, disagreed on the impact unionizing has had on families, saying, “it honestly seems like the families were wishing that they were not put in the middle of it.” She says that some families felt like “pawns”, and would have preferred the issue to stay between staff and management. That said, she does feel that the new contract has improved the atmosphere at Growing Seeds, commenting that, “the parents are noticing that the atmosphere and positivity hasn’t been there in quite some time.”
When asked about how she envisioned the future of Growing Seeds, she said she saw families, students, and teachers all “coming together to form a beautiful community.” But this time, how this dream comes to pass lies in the hands of not just those who founded this institution, but those who do the work to make it succeed. In a statement published after the strike, when the new and improved contract was ratified, GSWU wrote, “We are so grateful to the community and the countless workers who built this effort.”
Huh? The headline refers to freshman retention but the article describes a labor action. What gives?
Thanks for pointing this out Peter! We’ve corrected the article title.