A Ramsey County judge on Monday halted a unionization vote by state-subsidized child care providers, just two days before the state Bureau of Mediation Services was set to send out the ballots.
Judge Dale Lindman issued a temporary restraining order saying the union issue should be decided through the legislative process rather than by an executive order.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who ordered the vote, said he's now considering his legal options.
Opponents of the union effort argued that Dayton exceeded his executive branch authority last month when he ordered the election. They also said it was wrong for Dayton to limit voting to the 4,300 in-home providers who participate in a state subsidized child care program.
Judge Lindman agreed with both points. He said a law on unionization should begin in the Legislature and not be decided by fiat or executive order. Lindman also said he thought an election that leaves out most of the state's 11,000 licensed providers would be "very harmful," although he stressed that he was not ruling on the merits of unionization.
Becky Swanson of Lakeville, one of 11 child care providers who filed the lawsuit, was pleased with the ruling.
"We look at this as a huge gain for the child care providers in the state of Minnesota," she said. "That at least the judge is looking at this and saying that we do have legislative power. We do have a right to vote, and we do have a right to be heard."
Swanson and the other plaintiffs will be back in court for a Jan. 16 hearing. But Tom Revnew, the attorney representing the 11 providers, said he was pleased that the voting would not be taking place as scheduled.
"This is a temporary decision by the court, and the final decision by the court has not been rendered," Revnew said. "We'll be back in court, so the issue has not gone away. The issue before the court however was whether Gov. Dayton had the authority to do what he did, and at least temporarily, the court believes that he didn't."
Solicitor General Alan Gilbert, who represented Dayton in the hearing, argued that the executive order was not an attempt to make law. Gilbert said the governor was simply trying to enable a dialog about whether child care providers should organize a union.
In a statement, Dayton said he respects the court's decision, and that he plans to meet with the Attorney General Lori Swanson to consider the administration's next step. Dayton stressed that he still believes that "people should have the right to elections to determine their own destinies."
Two labor unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, have been trying to organize child care providers for several years. Jennifer Munt, a spokeswoman for AFSCME Council 5, said working with the Dayton administration offered providers the kind of support they could never expect from Republican lawmakers.
"Folks, if we took unionization to the Legislature, we all know what the verdict would be on that," Munt said. "What we're trying to do is make sure that the people who do the work have a voice in the decisions that affect them and the families that they serve."
Union concerns about the GOP Legislature appear well-founded.
"There's no way that we're going to unionize day care providers in the state," said state Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
Hann, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, convinced his colleagues to file a court brief last week in support of the legal challenge. He was pleased with the judge's ruling, which keeps the issue in the hands of the Legislature, but said that doesn't mean there's any reason to take it up.
"It's like a number of other things that belong in the Legislative branch. Just because they belong there doesn't mean that we should do them," Hann said. "You know the issue of taxation for example is a legislative issue. That doesn't mean we're going to increase taxes, but clearly the governor can't increase taxes on his own authority."
Hann said he thinks the controversy does open the door for a more general look at labor law next session. He predicts there will be several GOP-backed bills to clarify and change existing laws dealing with union membership.