Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday ordered a vote among thousands of child care workers across Minnesota on whether they want to join a union.

"I'm just giving people who are for and people who are against [it] what I think is the fairest way, the American way, to resolve their differences, which is to hold an election and let the majority decide," said Dayton, a DFLer who has had union backing throughout his political career.

The state Bureau of Mediation Services plans to send out ballots by Dec. 6. Child care providers will have until Dec. 20 to return them. The election will be limited to providers whose customers receive state subsidies for child care.

"This campaign's been going on a long time," said Josh Tilsen, bureau commissioner. "We decided it was time to get it done."

The contentious fight over child care unionization, quietly roiling in Minnesota for six years, is another example of the battles between unions and anti-union forces that are playing out across the nation.

Two of the state's largest unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Service Employees International Union, have spent years attempting to unionize child care workers and now will launch a full-blown persuasion campaign that could be met by legal action from opponents.

Dayton's executive order stops well short of the mandated unionization that some governors have ordered and which unions here sought. Nevertheless, it touched off strong reactions among Senate Republicans.

"There is nothing in Minnesota law that provides the governor with the power to do the things he says he is going to do," said Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. "The real question for us is: What do you do with a governor who won't follow the law? ... We are going to do everything in our power to make sure he is not able to proceed. We think it's against the law."

Dayton said that even if child care workers vote to unionize, those who don't wish to belong will be able to opt out. Union membership would be voluntary, he said, and no one would be forced to pay dues.

'Foot in the door'

Foes of the child care unionization effort say they are disappointed Dayton is ordering a vote at all.

"This is a foot-in-the-door measure at this point," said Jennifer Parrish, who runs Rochester's Little Learners Child Care and heads a coalition of providers against unionization. Parrish worries the unions won't give up until all family child care workers are union members.

"Our biggest concern is what happens next," Parrish said.

"It's just another Merry Christmas gift from our governor, which will put more government intrusion into the lives of our independent businesses," said state Sen. Mike Parry, a Waseca Republican running for Congress.

Hann and Parry said they plan to bring a suit to stop the union drive from moving forward, but were unclear whether they would bring it on behalf of the Senate or as individuals.

Hann said Dayton's move would allow the unions to replace the Legislature in dealings over child care.

But Dayton and administration officials say a yes vote would simply give AFSCME and SEIU the right to represent those workers in meetings with state agencies. The unions would be allowed only to "meet and confer" with state officials and would not usurp the Legislature's power of the purse, they said.

Who would vote?

Of the state's 11,000 licensed child care workers, only 4,300 are registered to accept children whose families receive child care subsidies. That means the election will be open to fewer than half the child care workers in the state.

Dayton said his executive order will not affect any child care providers that do not take state subsidies because "they are operating their own businesses outside the realm of government."

The governor said repeatedly on Tuesday that he takes no sides in the union fight but said he is "sympathetic" to those who are looking for "better wages, better working conditions, benefits like health care," that unions can bring.

Baird Helgeson contributed to this report. Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @rachelsb