Union showdown takes center stage at Minnesota Capitol

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON and JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: May 19, 2013 - 12:30 AM

The Legislature’s final testy days became a battle on the most sweeping union expansion in Minnesota in recent history. Vocal advocates on both sides added to the already emotional scene.

The Minnesota Legislature edged Saturday toward a dramatic showdown over the most sweeping union expansion in recent history as legislators braced for an overnight marathon debate on the proposal.

The highly anticipated watershed over whether child-care workers can unionize came after an already grueling day that saw legislators take up several large budget measures and race to finish last-minute changes to a $2 billion tax bill that includes aid for hallmark projects, including the Mayo Clinic and Mall of America. Legislators must adjourn the session by midnight on Monday.

Fiery crowds on both sides of the union debate built in the Capitol throughout the day, some of them having already fought over the issue for close to a decade.

“We’ll have a legal voice to collectively bargain with the state,” said Sharon O’Boyle, a child-care provider in Washington County. “That’s what we need — we need that legal voice.”

Jennifer Parrish operates a family child-care business in Rochester and has been fighting child-care unionization for eight years. “I’m tired, and quite frankly, I’m broke,” she said. “The way the bill is written, the deck is definitely stacked in the union’s favor.”

The labor debate is the last stand for opponents of a proposal to allow child-care and home health workers to unionize. If successful, the state’s two largest unions could add more than 20,000 new dues-paying members. Those unions could then represent the workers in negotiations with the state. Unions would have until 2017 to convince home health workers or child-care workers to organize. Neither group would have the right to strike, according to the proposal.

Many political watchers consider it the most consequential vote of the session, potentially more destructive to the DFL majorities than last week’s vote to legalize same-sex marriage.

“I believe this is more of a private business issue and an attack on entrepreneurship,” said Rep. Tim Kelley, R-Red Wing. About 70 percent of messages from his district have been against the measure, he said. “I guess overreaching would be not a strong enough word.”

Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, said that unionized child-care providers would be in a stronger position to fight for better funding, and better care, for children.

“It’s really about kids when you come down to it, and making sure the funding is there for them,” Metsa said. “Giving people the opportunity to vote for themselves is what we are doing here. The Legislature is not creating a union.”

The union proposal stirred the Senate to a 17-hour debate last week, breaking records for length and betraying a rancor on an issue that threatens to consume the end of the session. The Senate passed the measure by only three votes.

The House debate, which had not started at the time this edition went to press, is expected to match the Senate’s marathon debate and stretch well into Sunday.

Adding to the frenzy inside the Capitol, activists on both sides of the unionization issue were joined by advocates for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. A group of traditional Aztec dancers fired up the crowds as they sought to urge the House and Senate to take up the drivers’ license bill. Gov. Mark Dayton opposes the bill, which kills its chances for the year.

The unionization debate, which will be largely driven by Republicans, stands to gobble up crucial hours that could jeopardize Democratic leaders’ desire to finish before Monday’s mandatory adjournment deadline.

DFL legislators now have just two days to pass their tax proposal, the linchpin of their two-year budget. The governor and DFL legislative leaders already have agreed on the two key components — an income tax hike on high earners and a $1.60-per-pack hike in the tobacco tax, which would more than ­double the existing levy.

The crunch leaves lawmakers little time to sort through a blinding array of smaller, but crucial details.

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  • These day-care providers yelled “vote no” outside the House. “Vote yes” and “vote no” echoed throughout the Capitol.

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