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Unionization bill faces rocky road at Capitol

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Legislation allowing the unionization of two groups of state-subsidized workers -- childcare providers and personal care assistants -- is taking a slow and sometimes bumpy journey through the Legislature this session.
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Legislation allowing for unionization of two groups of state-subsidized workers -- child care providers and personal care assistants -- is taking a slow and sometimes bumpy journey this session through a Minnesota Legislature controlled by labor-friendly Democrats.

Supporters felt their chances for passage improved by combining the separate organizing efforts into one bill, however, it also multiplied the opposition.

The initiatives began this session as two separates bills, backed by two different unions. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 is trying to organize in-home child care providers who work with low-income families in the state's Child Care Assistance Program. The Service Employees International Union is aligned with personal care workers who provide home health care to the elderly and disabled.

DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas of St. Paul, the chief author of the Senate bill, said the two groups felt they could make their case more effectively by working together as part of the same bill. Pappas said she believes union representation will give the workers a stronger voice at the Capitol.

Sen. Sandy Pappas
Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, pictured Friday, March 23, 2012, is chief author of the Senate bill, said the two groups felt they could make their case more effectively by working together as part of the same bill. Pappas said she believes union representation will give the workers a stronger voice at the Capitol.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"They're not very well-paid. They could use some help, and my perspective has been the more help they can get the better," Pappas said. "If they have an association, great. If they have a union, great. Then they have two entities advocating for them, and they don't have to be in conflict at all."

Although the bill has moved through four committees in the House and four in the Senate, it has not been smooth sailing. Committee reports have been challenged on the House floor, and two Senate panels advanced the bill without recommending that the Senate pass it. Republicans have voted against the bill at every turn. GOP Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville said he thinks the attempt to unionize people who are essentially self-employed goes too far.

"Who are they negotiating against? Well, they're negotiating against the taxpayer. Because the idea is that Mr. And Mrs. John Jones who have "Jones daycare" -- they don't have an employer that they're negotiating a contract with," Thompson said. "So we're going to unionize them so that one of the public employee unions can go to government and ask for higher subsidies and more money. It's not even a union concept. It's almost bizarre."

Personal care assistants announced their push for legislation soon after Election Day, when Democrats won control of the House and Senate. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton tried get a union vote among child care providers a year earlier when Republicans were in control. But providers who oppose unionization convinced a judge to strike down that executive order. They're raising many of the same concerns now to fight the legislation. 

Republican Rep. Tara Mack of Apple Valley said she is not convinced that unionization is necessary.

Continued budget talks
Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, is pictured at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Tuesday, July 5, 2011. Thompson said he thinks the attempt to unionize people who are essentially self-employed goes too far. "Who are they negotiating against? Well, they're negotiating against the taxpayer. Because the idea is that Mr. And Mrs. John Jones who have "Jones daycare" -- they don't have an employer that they're negotiating a contract with," Thompson said.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"If the issue is sheer costs and rates to providers, they have the control to raise those rates and address the key issue that they this bill is trying to address," Mack said. "They could up the rates, make sure providers are getting paid what they need to for the cost of care."

The legislation is primarily a pathway to collective bargaining for both groups of workers. There is also a provision to create a new statewide list of available personal care assistants. The private-sector agencies that currently make those kinds of referrals have raised objections.

The House author of the bill, DFL Rep. Michael Nelson of Brooklyn Park, said he wants to allow both groups of workers to decide whether they want union representation. But after a recent committee hearing, Nelson said the combination of causes in one bill has been challenging.

"It's made it more difficult with the two of them together. It's sort of a like a friend of mine who got hired to do the same job his dad did. He inherited all his dad's enemies and none of his friends," Nelson said. "So, everyone's coming out against it, and the people who want to do this are being drowned out."

Both Nelson's bill and the Senate bill must clear one more committee before they go to the floor for debate.