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Should in-home daycare providers be unionized?

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There's a hearing tonight at the state Capitol on an issue that's becoming a political battle between Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican lawmakers. Two legislative committees Thursday night are looking at an effort to unionize Minnesota's in-home daycare providers. Labor groups have asked the governor to unionize daycare providers by executive order. Gov. Dayton said he doesn't plan to do that, but he thinks a unionization vote should be taken. 

MPR's Cathy Wurzer discussed the situation with two in-home childcare providers on opposite sides of the issue, as part of Morning Edition's one-on-one series. Jennifer Parrish runs Little Learners Childcare in Rochester. She opposes the unionization effort. Lisa Thompson operates an in-home daycare center in east St. Paul, and she leads the unionization effort for AFSCME Council 5. 

Cathy Wurzer: Lisa, I'm going to start with you first. Why do in-home childcare providers need a union?

Lisa Thompson: There are many reasons that we've heard from providers that are excited about this. The biggest reason that we hear over and over again is that we are in an isolating profession. We work by ourselves and we have little opportunity to advocate for ourselves in a profound way that has the lasting impact on the industry that controls our livelihood.

Wurzer: Jennifer, you've been fighting this unionization effort since it began about ... five years ago. Why are you opposed to it?

Jennifer Parrish: Well, there are quite a few reasons why we're opposed, but first and foremost because we are small business owners, so as small business owners, we create our own working conditions. We determine what our pay is going to be by setting our own rates. We negotiate directly with the parents who hire us to care for their children, so there's very little that a union can do for us that is not already being done by our state association.

Wurzer: Okay, now Lisa, Republican state senator Perry had said, 'How can you be the employer and unionize yourself?' So really whom exactly would your union collectively bargain with? The parents? The state of Minnesota?

Thompson: This has been the biggest struggle with organizing a new kind of industry in that we are not traditional employees, and never in our organizing efforts and our campaign to have this happen for our industry have we ever pushed for anything to change on our personal level with the parents. 

We are self-employed. We will always be self-employed. We will make all of the decisions on our own business, and that's not where providers are having their frustration. Their frustrations are at the regulatory level, and the people that regulate us, the agencies that are the state and the county.

Wurzer: When you talk about regulations and maybe getting some of these regulations changed, perhaps when it comes to a union bargaining. Give me an example. Just a for instance.

Thompson: Corrections orders for things like a plastic plug being out of the outlet, the fire extinguisher tag not being current, a cover not being on the trash can. And there have been providers that have these correction orders, and not only is the correction order on their record, but it has to be posted by the front door for two years. This is our homes.

Wurzer: And so you're thinking that you could be under a union situation, you could be able to change something like that.

Thompson: We would be able to negotiate a process and a system that works, both for keeping kids safe and for supporting us in the work that we do.

Wurzer: Jennifer, go ahead.

Parrish: Yes, I would actually like to comment on that. We actually have those rules and regulations in place to keep children safe. Those providers who don't want to follow the rules and regulations that are in place for us should have correction orders posted, and I tell you, you can look on the DHS website and see how few providers have correction orders out there. 

You know it's pretty simple stuff. You've got to have your outlets plugged to keep kids safe, and while sometimes an outlet plug may come out and it may not seem like a big deal, it'll be a big deal when a child gets hurt. And if we want that changed, if we decide as providers that we think that that's a good idea to change some of those rules, then we can lobby for that through our state and local associations and have that changed.

Wurzer: Lisa Thompson?

Thompson: I'm a member of the association and plan to continue to be a member of the association. You can never have enough advocates. This is a very complex, heavily regulated and very important job. We are preparing the future, and we need all the support and advocacy we can get.

Wurzer: Jennifer, in your neck of the woods in Rochester, what are you hearing from parents, some of your clients about this issue?

Parrish: Well there's definite concerns that not only are costs going to rise, but that this is going to drive some providers out of the business. Some providers who are drastically opposed to this have said that they will go unlicensed. They will not operate their license. I personally think that that's the wrong route. I will continue to maintain my license, even if I am forced to financially support this union that I do not approve of, but parents are concerned about less availability and higher costs for the most part.

Wurzer: Will costs go up, Lisa, if there's a union?

Thompson: I would never pass on a $20, $30, even $40 a month charge to my parents. I don't raise my price when gas goes up a dollar a gallon to go buy that milk that just raised another dollar a gallon. And I wouldn't pass on this fee. This is a business that we can't just charge more for the cookies on the shelf.

Wurzer: Jennifer Parrish, a comment?

Parrish: To say that we shouldn't be raising our rates as a result of the union dues or higher costs of operating through a union is off base. We have no other choice. We are like any other small business out there, and when the costs of doing business goes up, there isn't the extra money at the end of the month to put towards these higher costs of operating and higher costs of doing business.

Wurzer: As I listen to you talk, Jennifer, I'm curious. What's your greatest fear if this effort actually bears fruit and childcare providers unionize?

Parrish: Well, my greatest fear is that we are going to lose some of our political clout that we do have at the Capitol right now through our state association, and I'm also concerned that providers are being forced to participate and contribute financially to an organization that they don't support, and I don't think that that's fair. 

I don't think that any other group of small business owners has fallen under attack the same way that we have. If it becomes one day that it's strictly going to be the voice of the union and that's it, well we've seen it in other states that half the time there's not even 50 percent of the bargaining unit are actually members of the union, so very few people are determining what happens at a state level for all the providers, and that's my biggest fear.

Wurzer: Lisa, do you want to make a comment to that at all?

Thompson: I'm really happy to say that that is something that will never come to pass. 

Wurzer: How can you be sure of that, though?

Thompson: Because associations have things that they do well. Advocacy groups have things that they do well. And unions have things that they do well, and we need to each stop spending so much time doing the other things, doing everything, and recreating the wheel over and over again, and work together on what we do well.

In our economy fifty years ago, it was traditionally employer-employee. That's the way our economy was set up. Right now, all across the country, not just in family childcare, but independent contractor is a really common job title, position to be in, and it puts us at 11,000 people in the state of Minnesota in the position of having no one to bargain with, no one to talk to, no one to make agreements with and negotiate the terms of our work.

Wurzer: But you're negotiating with parents?

Thompson: Absolutely, and that's the part that will always remain and will never change. That's what makes family childcare unique.

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)