DFLers revive child care unionization effort

Essential services
A toddler at the Creative Kids Academy in Lexington, Minn. which serves families whose child care costs were subsidized by the state government. A bill introduced Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 would authorize in-home providers who receive state reimbursements to collectively bargain with the state.
MPR File Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Government-subsidized child care providers have renewed their effort to form a union, and this time they're asking labor-friendly Democrats to write it in state law.

Legislation introduced Monday by two DFL lawmakers would authorize the in-home providers to collectively bargain with the state. A legal challenge derailed an earlier unionization attempt.

When Republicans were running the Minnesota House and Senate, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton tried to schedule a union vote among in-home child care providers with an executive order. Opponents of the unionization effort went to court, and a Ramsey County judge stopped the vote cold.

He ruled that Dayton had exceeded his authority by trying to bypass the Legislature. With Democrats now in charge, union organizers can take the direct approach.

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Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, chief sponsor of the Child Care Collective Bargaining Act, said providers should have a seat at the table, as they do in 16 states.

"They need a unified voice to have a direct impact in raising the standards and quality in the profession," Pappas said. "To stabilize their workforce, improve their access to training and widening the availability of affordable care for children and working parents, they need a union."

The bill would affect an estimated 9,000 in-home providers who receive state reimbursements under the Child Care Assistance Program, which is designed to serve low-income families. They would not be classified as public employees and would not have the right to strike.

"This is the same way that teachers, nurses and social workers have organized across Minnesota for decades."

But collective bargaining could begin in one of two ways. Jennifer Munt, public affairs director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, said either a majority will need to sign union authorization cards or at least 30 percent would need sign cards seeking an election.

"This is the same way that teachers, nurses and social workers have organized across Minnesota for decades," Munt said. "It is the same threshold that any worker who chooses to join a union must pass."

Munt stressed that future collective bargaining would focus on reimbursements and regulations, not wages. She said child care costs would still be a matter for negotiation between the providers and parents.

Child care providers in Minnesota have been working to organize for seven years. Lisa Thompson of St. Paul said during that time period many providers have come together and acted like they were already union members, even collecting dues of $25 per month.

"We have been working together as a union to help improve and lift up our profession," Thompson said. "Now we're asking the state for collective bargaining recognition for our profession."

But some in-home providers want nothing to do with a union, or the fair-share dues they would be obligated to start paying. Becky Swanson of Lakeville, who was one of the plaintiffs in last year's lawsuit, said she still opposes unionization.

Becky Swanson
Becky Swanson is a Lakeville child care provider and was a plantiff of a lawsuit last year to stop Gov. Mark Dayton's executive order for about 4,200 state-subsidized child care providers to vote on unionization.
MPR File Photo/Tim Pugmire

Swanson doesn't currently care for any children who are covered under the state subsidy, but she said she still sees the effort as a threat to her independence. "This is an issue about the government wanting to get into our business, and we as small business owners and women are standing up, and we're saying no," Swanson said.

Some Republican lawmakers are also criticizing the legislation. Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, accused the union of trying to "grab money" from hard-working providers. Franson said she believes parents will end up paying more.

"A smart business owner is not going to absorb the cost of union dues," Franson said. "They will pass that along to the consumer, which would be the parents. Already some of them are struggling to make those child care payments."

The child care bill comes on the heels of another labor initiative. DFL legislators introduced a separate measure last week to allow a union vote among subsidized personal care assistants who provide self-directed home health care to the elderly and disabled. The Service Employees International Union is leading that effort.