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Odalis provides childcare out of her home in Syracuse, New York. Odalis and her family arrived in the United States from Cuba in 2002. Syracuse receives approximately 1,000 refugees per year and is one of the main resettlement locations in New York, the third largest resettlement state in the nation.

The West Side Learning Center in Syracuse, New York, serves new immigrants to the city, providing English language classes and training programs to help families adapt to life in the United States. The center not only provides childcare to the families learning English but also trains women who are interested in making a career of childcare.

Soon after moving to Syracuse from Cuba in 2002, Odalis Gaskins-Ginarte began both English classes and job training that helped her become a licensed childcare provider. Today, Odalis is a member of the Voice of Organized Independent Childcare Educators (VOICES), one of 7,200 registered group childcare providers in Local 100A of the Civil Service Employees Association.

When she left Cuba with her husband and 2-year-old son, Odalis was not expecting to make a career of child care and early childhood education. In Cuba, she was an architect. The skills she acquired as an architect in Cuba she puts to use every day teaching the children under her care. Odalis is more than an example of a refugee who transitioned to a successful second career. She has found not only a career but also a calling in childcare and early education. The United States may have lost a trained architect, but the country gained a committed nurturer and advocate who is helping both her new city and refugees from all over the world.

As a leader in her local union, Odalis speaks not only for herself and the other childcare providers, but also families of the children whom they provide care. It’s not that immigrant families can’t speak for themselves or don’t have the skill; parents are mostly struggling to make a living and scarcely have time to lobby elected officials. In recent years states have shifted more of the cost of child care to parents, due to budget shortfalls in the wake of the Great Recession and the federal government’s own cuts to childcare assistance. The bargaining power that comes with being part of the union has made it possible to forestall attempts to cut government assistance for child care.

Among childcare workers across the nation, just 6.2 percent are members of a union. Unions clearly benefit workers and women workers in particular. During the period 2009 to 2013, according to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, women workers in unions earned an average of 12.9 percent more than nonunion women. But for women in typically low-wage occupations, the union-wage advantage is even larger—for example, 24 percent or $2.75 per hour for childcare workers. The study also found that companies with a union presence are 18 percent more likely to provide paid sick leave, 21 percent more likely to provide paid vacation, and 21 percent more likely to provide paid holidays.

“The Equal Pay Act is often presumed to be an accomplishment of the feminist movement of the 1960s. In fact, it was spearheaded by female trade unionists, who first introduced the bill in 1945 as an amendment to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act,” says Ruth Milkman, a sociologist with City University of New York. “The bill was defeated, largely because of staunch opposition from business interests, but a coalition of labor activists reintroduced it every year until it finally passed in 1963.”

Belonging to a union does not eliminate the gender wage gap, but it does reduce it by half.

Union membership as a whole has been on the decline for more than 30 years, but this is more the case for men than for women. Women have a bigger stake than ever in the survival of unions and their continued ability to protect workers’ rights. At the time the Equal Pay Act was signed, women made up less than 20 percent of the union workforce in the country. By 2013, they were 46 percent of all union workers, and if the current trend continues, they will become a majority by 2025.