With Minnesota’s long history of embracing labor rights, our state has — to date — avoided the tumultuous battles that have erupted elsewhere in recent years. But even standing on the sidelines, Minnesotans couldn’t help noticing the political upheaval across our border to the east.

Shortly after his election two years ago, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker introduced legislation to restrict the collective-bargaining rights of public employees. The result? A firestorm of opposition reflected in huge protests at the State Capitol in Madison.

Walker and Republican lawmakers used their legislative majorities to require public workers to pay more for their health insurance and pension benefits while taking away their ability to collectively bargain over these issues. At the time, Walker argued the changes were needed to help state and local governments deal with a $3 billion budget shortfall.

The irony is that the highly regarded Pew Center on the States last year (before Wisconsin’s new law took effect) said Wisconsin was the only state to earn a “solid performer” ranking from funding of both its pensions and health care obligations.

Anger over the law’s passage led to an effort to recall Walker. While he prevailed at the ballot box, the legal battles over the law continue in Wisconsin courts. And the divisions among Wisconsin’s voters grow deeper.

These political battles over union rights may be good politics for anti-union conservatives, but they are bad public policy for everyone else. The needless disagreements block the potential for cooperation among workers, employers and taxpayers on longer-term reforms, including needed changes in public pensions and health care programs.

Now, Minnesota is heading down the same path, only from the Democratic side of the aisle. Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL legislators are trying to use their majority control of the legislative process to unfairly expand labor rights. At the request of organized labor, legislation is moving forward that would unionize family child-care providers. It’s a bad idea.

The effort is largely designed to empower child-care providers to lobby for larger government subsidies. Care providers forming an association to lobby for higher government payments — as others with shared interests have done — is one thing. But sanctioning a union to lobby for higher payments from government is a different matter.

Unions are the vehicles for workers to gain influence in negotiations with their employers. Child-care operators are self-employed, small-business owners. By what stretch of linguistics do they become workers in need of a union?

In Minnesota, there are roughly 80,000 children in licensed child-care centers. But a far larger number of preschool-age children — around 180,000 — are cared for in a “friend, family or neighbor” setting. In total, today only 30,000 children a month are members of families receiving government subsidy help. Once child-care providers are organized, unions would collect union dues to finance a lobbying campaign in order to secure more subsidies (and, if successful, they could then justify higher union dues).

Dayton tried to certify a union organizing effort by executive order, an action that was later struck down by the courts as an unconstitutional infringement on legislative power. So, now the issue awaits a legislative decision.

The House Early Childhood committee passed a bill that would unionize child-care providers who serve families receiving subsidized child-care assistance. The Senate bill goes even further, covering not just child-care providers but personal-care attendants.

When the House Committee considered this matter, a long line of providers testified against the bill. They argued that as independent small-business operators, they did not want a union or the state to interfere with the relationship they enjoy with the families they serve.

There are important issues involving child care that should be resolved through public policy, including standards of care, safety and access for low-income families. Opponents rightly worry that unionization of child-care providers would raise costs to families who, in many cases, already struggle to pay for child care. Minnesota has some of the highest child-care costs in the country. In-home care often is a quality, affordable option.

Minnesota and the country need a thoughtful conversation about the future of collective bargaining. But just as Walker and Wisconsin Republicans put politics ahead of policy and went too far in restricting union rights, Minnesota’s DFL politicians now are poised to go too far in their attempt to expand them. This policy pendulum only serves to create angry rhetoric as opposed to constructive dialogue.


Tom Horner is a public-affairs consultant and was chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn. Tim Penny is president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and is a former Democratic member of Congress. Both are former Independence Party candidates for governor.