Home aides seek right to join one of Minn.'s biggest unions

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 13, 2012 - 8:18 AM

The DFL is in a powerful position to ease the way for a bargaining vote.

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Lynn Rubenstein Nicholson, who has degenerative spinal disease, got a kiss from her son, Zev Nicholson, a personal assistant who cares for her.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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One of the state's largest unions is seeking a change in the law that would allow it to bargain on behalf of thousands of people who provide home care to elderly or disabled Minnesotans, including their own family members.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and incoming DFL House Speaker Paul Thissen say they are open to the idea of allowing an estimated 15,000-20,000 people the chance to join the Service Employees International Union.

The move would put Minnesota's new DFL-run government in the position of helping strengthen the SEIU at a time when Republican-dominated governments in Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin have been limiting union influence with right-to-work laws or public-employee bargaining limits.

"We know the governor and legislators support workers forming unions," said Jamie Gulley, president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. "We expect a good outcome."

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said he sees the DFL wanting to create "a whole bunch more people that we know will vote Democrat."

"Elections have consequences," Thompson said, referring to the recent election that swept his party from power in Minnesota and installed DFL majorities in the House and Senate. The unions "got their guys in office."

The workers who would be unionized are personal care assistants, or PCAs. They help disabled or elderly people with daily activities in their homes and help keep them from needing to live in expensive nursing homes.

"We assist with many tasks like bathing, grooming, toileting and dressing," said Zev Nicholson of Minneapolis, who cares for his mother and supports the union effort. "They may seem mundane or simple, but they are lifesaving for the people we work with."

The state, through the Medicaid program, pays an hourly rate for the service. Nicholson said the rate varies by location, but tends to average about $10.50-$12 per hour. The Minnesota Department of Human Services estimates that there are more than 40,000 personal care assistants paid by the state, with a total cost of $557 million in 2011.

The union proposal would only apply to those personal care assistants hired directly by the disabled person or the family -- not those employed by a home care agency, and who already have the right to unionize. The union puts that number at 15,000-20,000.

If the law passes and is signed by Dayton, it would provide for an election among those eligible, Gulley said. If a union is formed, it would be covered under the public-employee bargaining law, but there would be no right to strike, he said.

At an emotional event at Dunning Recreation Center in St. Paul, caregivers and their clients talked Wednesday about the lifesaving importance of having help in the home. They said it can allow one member of the family to work outside the home while another family member provides care. It also spares the state the heavy expense of institutionalization.

"I'm saving the taxpayer lots of money by caring for my son in our home," said Clara Nakumbe of Minneapolis, whose 39-year-old son, Siran, has severe multiple sclerosis. "We have to treat caregivers like real workers. Any of us could become disabled at any moment."

A new tack

The home care unionization effort follows an earlier, failed attempt by SEIU and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to unionize certain child care workers. That ran afoul of the GOP-controlled Legislature and the courts, which shot down Dayton's executive order that would have allowed workers to vote on unionization. SEIU officials say they have no plan to renew that fight.

But the 2012 election changed the climate for labor legislation in St. Paul.

The SEIU's state political fund contributed more than $900,000 in the 2012 election cycle, almost all of it to the DFL Party, affiliated groups and DFL candidates.

Asked about the PCA unionization proposal Wednesday, Dayton said, "I support the principle that those who are affected by it should have the right to vote on whether they want to form a union."

Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said he wants to see the specifics of the proposal, but believes those workers provide a valuable service to their families and to the state.

"Most people have the right, if they wish, to organize to protect their workplace," Thissen said. "I don't know why these people shouldn't have that same right."

Thompson, who sponsored the right-to-work legislation that infuriated unions and stalled last year, and Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, the incoming Senate minority leader, questioned the reason for the proposal, but said they understood the politics. Hann said the unions are "a subsidiary of, or maybe it's the other way around, the DFL Party," and said the benefit for the unions would be more members and dues.

Thompson said he sees both the child care and PCA union efforts as political moves aimed at "getting money from taxpayers."

Staff writers Baird Helgeson and Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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  • Personal care attendants and supporters gathered at the Dunning Recreation Center in St. Paul Wednesday to back an effort to allow PCAs to join the Service Employees International Union.

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