When day care provider Sue Winn was first approached about joining a union, she was skeptical.
"We didn't know if they were going to come in and force us to do things that we didn't want to do, whether the dues were going to be really high," said Winn, who takes care of kids in her home north of Seattle, Washington.
But eventually, Winn came around.
"We set our own dues, we make our own decisions," she said. "But we have the support of paid union workers who have lobbying powers, we have numbers. It's given us a whole lot of power we didn't have before."
Winn could be any one of the providers in Minnesota who have found themselves at the center of a battle over whether to unionize. It's a debate that has pitted the state's executive branch against the courts, Republicans in the Legislature against DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the unions against some of the very workers they seek to represent. It's prompted issue ads, a lawsuit, a restraining order meant to block a unionization vote, and several legislative hearings.
Some say child care could cost parents and the state more. Others believe that unionization will lead to better child care options, and will give providers a unified voice in St. Paul.
But for all the strife, it is unclear precisely how organizing Minnesota's in-home day care providers would affect the state. A look at how unionization has played out elsewhere provides some clues.
UNION WOULD LIKELY PUSH FOR HIGHER STATE SUBSIDIES
Fifteen other states have organized child care provider unions, and each has different rules. Some include only workers who participate in taxpayer funded programs that assist low-income parents. Others encompass all providers, and those who would rather not participate must still pay a fee.
Union officials say their primary goal is to work with the state to professionalize a disparate industry that doesn't benefit from a strong presence among lawmakers.
Dayton's executive order mandates licensed in-home care providers who participate in the state's Child Care Assistance Program to vote on unionization. That's about 4,200 workers; the roughly 7,000 remaining providers who don't collect subsidies from the state would not be allowed to vote.
An affirmative vote would grant the union the opportunity to meet with the state to hash out changes to rules, to negotiate better subsidy rates, and lobby for better training. The providers would not be considered state employees. The type of day care union Minnesota providers are mulling would be unusual compared to those in other states: Dayton's executive order does not require workers who take subsidized kids to join the union, and those who don't want to participate would not have to pay a fair-share representation fee, despite the fact that Minnesota is a fair-share state.
In the last legislative session, the state cut child care subsidies by 2.5 percent to save $6.6 million over two years. Reinstating that funding and increasing rates would be a top goal for a potential day care union, said Jennifer Munt, spokeswoman for American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 5, which would represent providers in the northern part of the state.
"A 2.5 percent pay cut for providers and for people who are operating on a very thin margin makes it more difficult" to adequately prepare kids for school, she said.
Boosting subsidies would come at a cost to the state.
In Washington, for instance, the state appropriated $86 million in 2007 to fund the union contract, which included a subsidy bump, according to a report by the National Women's Law Center, which supports unionization. And the Oregon legislature approved $39.9 million to support higher rates, training and other aspects of its agreement with the new union.
Unionization proponents say that it's become difficult to negotiate more money given leaner state coffers. With a projected deficit of $1.3 billion in the next two year budget cycle, Minnesota is no different.
But they argue it's worth the investment.
Bigger subsidies mean poorly-paid providers will make more; others will have a stronger incentive to take low-income children, they say. And in some states, negotiations have resulted in allowing more low-income parents to take advantage of subsidized child care, and better training for providers who might not otherwise have access to such instruction, said Helen Blank, director of leadership and public policy at the National Women's Law Center.
HEALTH CARE A PRIORITY
It's also possible a new union could ask the state for help with health care, said Munt. For instance, the Illinois legislature has contributed at least $27 million toward premiums for unionized workers.
But some workers say health care benefits are lackluster, in some cases because the state hasn't been willing to contribute, and in others because insurers aren't interested in covering the workers at a low enough cost.
Among them is Carol Wilson, who is a union member in Olympia, Washington, and president of the Washington State Family Child Care Association. She says that the union has brought her industry some good things, such as better training and a voice in discussions about rules and regulations.
"I'm glad they're there," she said. "But I think they talk a big talk, I think they promise a lot because they want to get in there and get your money and that's their job."
Health care coverage was among those promises. It's a big concern for many of Wilson's colleagues because they are all self-employed and some are unmarried.
But the plan has a long waiting list. And providers are warned that they will lose coverage if they lose children who are subsidized by the state.
"That doesn't work for a lot of people who have health issues who need a dependable kind of health care," said Wilson, who has declined the union benefits because she has health problems that require reliable coverage.
Larraine Murray who runs an in-home day care in Des Moines, Iowa and has been active in union negotiations, said that AFSCME offers members a slim, but affordable plan that's better than nothing.
"You don't get a lot with it," she said. "It's still better than what, before the unions? There was nothing. You depended on your husband," she said.
TO JOIN OR NOT TO JOIN
Jennifer Parrish, who takes care of kids in her home in Rochester, Minn., and who opposes unionization, said she's worried the cost of union dues will be passed along to parents, ultimately driving up the cost of day care.
There's scant evidence that would be the case, though. Dues in other states range from $25 to $50 monthly and other providers - pro-union or not - say they haven't raised their rates to cover the cost. In Minnesota, those dues would be taken out of the state subsidy checks providers receive for taking care of low-income kids.
But that's a minor concern compared to what could come, Parrish said. She points to the possible addition of pre-school curriculum or higher provider-to-child ratios in the home as things that could make child care pricier - decisions she may have no say in, even though Dayton's executive order allows any organization to weigh-in on child care issues.
Rose Grimes is a provider in Kansas who said her choice was between joining a union she opposes for a voice in state-level negotiations or swallowing new rules she disagrees with.
In her opinion, her local union has so far tired to dumb-down child care rules because the people who need union representation most aren't very good workers to begin with. And she's frustrated that regulation changes don't reflect the variety of in-home providers in her state.
"That's what's so great about family child care," she said. "We're all different."