Two of the state's most powerful labor groups want to unionize an unlikely group of workers -- those who offer child care in their own homes.

Their chief ally in that effort could be Gov. Mark Dayton. The unions are asking Dayton to issue an executive order that could unilaterally recognize the unions as the legal representatives of more than 11,000 licensed family child care workers across the state.

Dayton spokeswoman Katie Tinucci said the governor is studying the issue and has not yet made a decision.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union have been working since 2005 to bolster their ranks with the in-home child-care providers who care for about 129,000 children. That effort is now in its final stages. AFSCME, charged with canvassing northern Minnesota, says it has obtained signatures from a majority of caregivers in the counties it covers. SEIU, which concentrated on the southern half of the state, says it is nearing its goal.

"It's a very hot issue,'' said Katy Chase, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Family Child Care Association, a professional organization that is neutral on the unionization effort. "We have members that are pro-union, and members that are anti-union.'' She said Dayton has the authority to issue "an executive order that would or could affect the entire state. It's a really big deal.''

Growing movement

Fourteen states across the country have unionized in-home day care workers. In two of those, New York and Illinois, the states help pay health care coverage for providers, according to a national survey of the movement. In most states, unions have worked to strengthen child care subsidy programs and improve training, licensing and administrative practices.

Union officials here say their focus would be on those issues. What parents pay, they say, would continue to be negotiated privately between providers and parents.

The issue is contentious within the field and of considerable interest to working parents, who rely heavily on licensed in-home care and already devote a significant portion of the family budget to it.

In neighboring Wisconsin, former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle recognized unions' right to bargain on behalf of child care workers, but those workers lost that right once Republican Gov. Scott Walker took office.

The reverse political calculus affected Minnesota's effort. Unionization efforts ran into a wall of opposition when former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, held office, according to Jennifer Parrish, a Rochester provider who fought the unionization effort then and now. The unionizing effort may have gained new life with the election of Dayton, a DFLer and strong labor advocate.

Parrish, who operates Little Learners Child Care in Rochester, said she first became alarmed when a union organizer knocked on her front door in 2006. She sees no benefit from the dues-collecting union because, she says, providers are already represented by professional associations in licensing and funding disputes. State subsidies, she said, benefit parents, not providers, and few in-home caregivers have customers who get the state subsidy.

"To pay union dues when you're not going to see a benefit ... it really doesn't make any sense at all,'' Parrish said. She said she believes many providers have been unclear that a union campaign was underway, or that even those who do not sign the cards could ultimately wind up being represented by the unions under an executive order. "That's compulsory unionism,'' said Parrish.

Lisa Thompson is on the other side. She signed her authorization card in 2005 and has since worked to get others to follow suit.

"What I would like, is for statewide recognition of the voice of child care providers," she said. "The majority of us have signed cards saying we want to join together for this type of recognition.''

She said providers will remain private operators who negotiate fees with parents, and the union will not be involved in that transaction.

"Absolutely not -- we will continue to be self employed,'' Thompson said. Eric Lehto, organizing director for AFSCME's Council 5, said "We're talking about a union, not a cartel.''

Political pressures

Politics could also figure in to the pressures on the governor. Both unions endorsed Dayton in last November's gubernatorial race. Brian Elliott, executive director of SEIU's Minnesota State Council, said that "during the election, SEIU and AFSCME were both in communication with the governor about their respective interests in a possible executive order.''

Three county boards with a strong labor presence -- Ramsey, Hennepin and St. Louis -- have adopted resolutions creating partnerships with AFSCME's child-care effort.

Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, who sits on the K-12 and state government finance committees, said he was unaware of the door-to-door campaign and Dayton's consideration of the issue.

He said he would oppose any attempt to tie licensure or state subsidies to union membership. He also said he would oppose the use of executive action to require union membership, and suggested the Legislature might fight that if it comes to pass.

Chase, of the Family Child Care Association, said she has received more than 30 reports of providers who say they did not realize what they were signing. She has encouraged the governor to call for a vote among providers on the question of unionization. "We do not in any way know if it is the wish of the majority to unionize or not to unionize,'' she said.

Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalester College, said this effort fits in with efforts across the country to organize other widely scattered service workers, including home health-care aides and domestic workers. "There are now a variety of relationships, rather than the old employer-employee, or boss-worker,'' he said. "There are a lot of 'in-betweens,' and this is one of the manifestations of that.''

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042