Anti-union child care providers sue to block union

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 29, 2013 - 10:10 PM

Legal battle over child-care unions begins as political battle ends.

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Opponents of the bill, shown earlier in the month outside the State Capitol. Anti-union providers are suing to block a union election.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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The eight-year battle over unionizing in-home child-care providers bounced from the State Capitol back to the courtroom Wednesday, where anti-union providers are seeking to block a union election authorized days ago by the DFL-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton.

“You do not mess with people who care for children — especially women,” said Hollee Saville, a child-care provider from St. Michael, longtime union foe and plaintiff in the suit.

“The Minnesota Legislature gave home child-care providers and home health-care workers the right to vote on a union,” responded Jennifer Munt, spokeswoman for AFSCME Council 5, which is organizing child-care providers. “There is nothing more constitutional than the democratic right to vote.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, takes aim at one of the last major acts of the Minnesota Legislature before it adjourned: passage of a union-supported bill that gives some child-care providers and personal care assistants the right to vote on unionization. While personal care assistants are relatively new to the battle, unions have worked years to organize child-care providers.

Saville and another provider-plaintiff, Becky Swanson of Lakeville, also were plaintiffs in a nearly identical suit that the court ruled on last year. That suit, filed by Doug Seaton, the same attorney representing them this year, succeeded in blocking the DFL governor from ordering a union election by executive order.

The judge said union supporters needed to go to the Legislature and get a law passed.

This year, after helping elect DFL majorities in the House and Senate, union supporters did just that. The bill passed by a bare majority in the House and only after a 17-hour debate in the Senate, with Saville and Swanson lobbying hard against it. AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union, which is organizing the personal care assistants, made passage of the bill a top priority, and it became a flashpoint of the session’s last days.

Wednesday’s suit, directed against Dayton and state agencies, refers only to the child-care providers, but eventually could affect home care workers if a judge blocks the election.

The suit argues that the new law restricts the union vote to only those licensed and unlicensed family providers who care for children receiving state subsidies, disenfranchising nearly half of all licensed providers. “This is not democratic,” Saville said. “In a democracy, everyone would get a vote.”

Seaton said the complaint also makes the case he sought to make during hearings on the bill — that federal labor law prevents it. “Business owners in the private sector can’t be labeled public employees and then thrown into a union,” Seaton said. If the law succeeds, he said, “nobody is going to be free of the possibility of being dragooned into a union and forced to pay dues.”

Munt said that in-home child-care providers are not covered under federal labor law and that the state can give them a unionization option. “No one is being forced to join a union,” she said.

The bill would allow about 12,700 providers the right to vote in an election if the union gets enough authorization cards to trigger a vote, Munt said. If the vote is in favor of unionization, individual providers could opt to remain outside the union, but would still be charged a fee for union representation.

Munt said union officials are meeting with affected providers to make the case that unions can help improve subsidies and training. She said health insurance also is a high priority of providers who favor unionization.

The suit, and another planned for next week by attorney William Messenger, of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation of Springfield, Va., seeks to block the law permanently. But even if it doesn’t, it could delay a showdown vote.

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, called the lawsuit “frivolous” and said he is confident of victory.

The union push has drawn opposition from conservative groups, including the Minnesota Majority and the Minnesota Family Council, which have formed an anti-unionization group called Childcare Freedom.

Seaton noted that last year’s case is not yet finished. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in April that private attorneys in the earlier case are entitled to legal fees paid by the state, in part because Dayton’s unionization order was based on an incorrect reading of state labor laws.

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