A drive to unionize thousands of in-home child-care workers in Minnesota is intensifying into a full-scale political battle between DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP leaders at the Capitol.

Dayton on Tuesday sharply criticized legislators for announcing that they will hold a hearing this week on attempts by labor groups to unionize Minnesota's more than 11,000 licensed, in-home child-care providers.

"It's a waste of taxpayers' money to have a hearing on something that may or may not happen," Dayton said of the GOP-led Senate hearing, scheduled for Thursday.

But Republicans say the prospect of unionized day-care providers has raised concerns among parents and providers and they want a thorough airing.

"The parents are unhappy, the owners of day cares are unhappy," House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said of the possibility of unionization. "You cannot be the employer and unionize yourself." Added Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, one of the organizers of the Senate hearing: "The governor is walking a very thin line of trying to make law."

Two of the state's largest unions have been going door to door to solicit support of child-care workers and have asked Dayton to unionize the workers through executive order. Dayton has said he will not do that but supports having a vote taken among providers.

Across the country Republicans have been challenging the role and influence of public employee unions. In Minnesota, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have spent years attempting to organize providers in Minnesota.

In a letter to Dayton, Zellers and House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said the providers "are independent contractors, not public employees nor employees of any single employer. You lack the authority, since an executive order purporting to unionize these small businesses would inherently entail lawmaking."

Dayton said he has made no decision beyond rejecting the path taken by labor-friendly governors in several other states, which was to recognize the unions by executive order after their organizing drives. He said Tuesday he is asking his legal staff to determine the scope of his authority. "I would rather there be an election than have [unionization] imposed on child-care workers and providers," he said.

Officials of the two unions said they believe if the matter comes to a vote among providers, the decision to unionize will prevail.

"To be honest with you, we're really excited about it," said Denise Welte, organizing director of SEIU's Local 284. Jennifer Munt, spokeswoman for AFSCME, said, "Our position is, child-care providers have already voted. If the governor wants them to vote again, that's fine. We're not afraid of an election." Organizers have been collecting authorization cards from those who favor unionization since 2005.

Katy Chase, executive director of Minnesota Licensed Family Child Care Association, which has remained neutral on the issue, also was pleased with movement toward a vote. She hopes it will require a majority of all of the state's licensed family providers to approve the union, rather than merely a majority of those voting.

Those opposed to what they call "forced unionization" held a small rally of few dozen child-care workers and legislators at the State Capitol on Tuesday afternoon. Hollee Saville, a provider from St. Michael, called unionizing small-business owners "preposterous" and said it could lead to increases in rates for parents. The unions have said they would not be negotiating rates with parents but would represent child-care providers in dealing with the state.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, was a child-care provider for four years. She said she worries about "propaganda" children might be exposed to, including forming the phrase "tax the rich" in macaroni noodles as a craft project.

A review of the issue by the House Research Department said state and federal labor laws do not appear to apply to home-based child-care workers. The review questioned whether union dues could be deducted from any state or federal subsidy payments to providers and said the Legislature could enact laws to block the unionization effort.

"There are clearly more questions surrounding this issue than answers at this time," researcher Anita Neumann wrote.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042