Organizing saves U of MN Child Development Center

Front row, left to right: Steward Emily Erpelding; staff campaign co-chair, Heather Lynch; Laura El-liott; and Kelli Kern. Back row, left to right: Mandy Sumwalt; Lily Bray; and co-chair Magn Wakeham.
Front row, left to right: Steward Emily Erpelding; staff campaign co-chair, Heather Lynch; Laura El-liott; and Kelli Kern. Back row, left to right: Mandy Sumwalt; Lily Bray; and co-chair Magn Wakeham.

Reprinted from AFSCME Council 5 magazine Stepping Up

Early child development teachers were working with their young students at the University of Minnesota when parents arrived with disturbing news.

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“They said, you guys are closing,” recalls assistant preschool teacher Magn Wakeham. That’s how staff learned the university planned to shut down the Child Development Center in 18 months to expand the Shirley G. Moore Laboratory School. “Parents are cry-ing, staff are crying, and kids are wondering what’s going on.”
The move would have left 140 young children without their beloved teachers and 130 workers without jobs, including 40 fulltime staff – nearly all AFSCME members – and 85 college students. To add insult to injury, the department dean kept minimizing what workers do, saying it wasn’t the university’s responsibility to run a daycare, recalls preschool teacher Mandy Sumwalt.
The U of M Child Development Center is so well-respected, it’s viewed as a model for early child-hood education across Minnesota and other states. The UMCDC serves as a training site for students in several majors including child psychology, physical therapy and early childhood education who may observe or do practicums in the classrooms; and provides research opportunities for fac-ulty to learn more about early child development and quality care.
“When you get the news, you think, my life is over, you have nowhere to go,” Wakeham said. “But we had a union to go to that could fight with us. We were not fighting alone.”
Parents, teachers and staff quickly mobilized. Parents formed a committee, a Facebook page and reached out to the media. They called lawmakers and signed petitions.
AFSCME 3937 and 3800 members designed T-shirts, signed member cards, held local meetings and met with the dean. The workers handed out buttons and fliers. They attended the State of the Union in their green shirts, asked about the university’s justification for closing the UMCDC, and then swarmed the president after.
They attended Council 5’s Day on the Hill and talked to lawmakers. They kept members informed. They got strong support from other AFSCME locals, the Teamsters, the Faculty Senate and even some deans.
All the while, “We were maintaining our high-quality education,” says preschool teacher Kelli Kern.
IB Image“We agreed this decision is horrible, but we are here for the chil-dren, and we need to keep showing why children should come here,” says Wakeham, who co-chaired the staff campaign with Heather Lynch. “We were doing what we could as a teaching staff team. We didn’t want it to affect the children.” Members encouraged each other not to jump ship. Families didn’t leave, either.
The first sign that this coalition was winning came in March. The university president announced he was postponing the closure and forming an advisory committee. Because of contract language, AFSCME Local 3937 president Mary Austin and Local 3800 president Cherrene Horazuk both had seats at the table. That com-mittee recommended the University merge the center and the Lab School, and build several more centers to meet the high demand for child care.
On Sept. 18, the U announced its decision to follow those recom-mendations and keep the UMCDC open. Parents hand-delivered letters with the good news.
“We’re the little guy, and we won,” Kern says. “It made me feel like we’re heard.”
“It feels important to be part of the movement for quality early childhood education because it’s been undervalued and nonexist-ent in our country, and it’s been valued in other countries,” Sumwalt said. “These are critical years of development for kids. These are the years that deter-mine success for the rest of their lives. We all understand that. Now we’re making other people care, too.”
Their victory brought them together as a staff and made them stronger as a union.
“If we work together, we’ll be protected,” Wakeham said. “Our voices will be heard. The more voices we have, the stronger we’ll become.”