Minnesota personal care aides back statewide union

Home health care rally
Minneapolis resident Anab Jama speaks about her experiences caring for her mother during a July rally supporting home health care workers as they filed for union election.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Government-subsidized personal care assistants — people who work with the elderly and disabled in their homes — have voted to form a union.

Labor organizers billed it as the largest union vote in Minnesota history, though only 22 percent of the nearly 27,000 eligible home health workers mailed in their ballots this month, according to data released Tuesday by the state Bureau of Mediation Services.

The final tally was 3,543 in favor of a union and 2,306 opposed.

Despite the low participation, union supporters celebrated the outcome. The Service Employees International Union will now represent PCAs at the bargaining table in negotiations with the state.

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"The vote is in. We now have a union. We are now not invisible anymore," said Debra Howze, a PCA from Minneapolis.

"We are a force to be reckoned with," said Howze, adding she wasn't concerned by the low vote totals. "We are 26,000 plus strong."

Working conditions vary widely for PCAs, and turnover can be high among those caring for non-family members.

Home health care rally
Nikki Villavicencio, center, and Sumer Spika, right, rally a crowd of home health care workers and their supporters with the chant "Invisible No More" in July.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this summer said similar workers in Indiana could not be compelled to pay "fair share" union dues if they object.

Sumer Spika, a PCA and union supporter from St. Paul, downplayed the financial impact of that ruling on the new union.

"It comes back to 60 percent of the people voted that they want a union," Spika said. "That's the majority. We'll move forward with that support and continue to change lives for ourselves and our clients."

The DFL-controlled Minnesota Legislature agreed earlier this year to allow the vote. The move was controversial, with Republicans accusing Democrats of paying back their allies in organized labor for their help in last fall's election.

On Tuesday, state Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, said she was disappointed that such a big shift in policy was decided by so few PCAs.

"If they were a bit confused and not totally sure exactly what was going on and the repercussions, I just fear that there's not a real firm grasp on what this means for folks," Mack said.

"I think we have to keep in mind a lot of the people affected day in and day out are up to their eyeballs in what it takes to care for their loved ones or disabled folks."

Union opponents went to court to try to stop the election. But a federal judge denied their motion for a temporary injunction last week, calling the challenge premature.

Now that the election results are known, opponents plan to push ahead with a suit that claims the law allowing the vote is unconstitutional.

The National Right to Work Foundation is providing legal help to a group of PCAs who brought that lawsuit.

The election result is the "tyranny of a small minority," foundation president Mark Mix said in a statement.