The debate over a door-to-door organizing drive among in-home child care providers has raised an essential question: What is a union?

This issue lurks below the politics of the issue and the merits of the effort by two Minnesota unions to organize more than 11,000 widely scattered licensed family child care providers. Does the union model fit private businesses run out of homes in which the closest thing to an "employer" would be tens of thousands of working parents?

This was at the core of an exchange between Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, and St. Paul child care provider Lisa Thompson, a union supporter, at a recent committee hearing.

"You're a self-employed person,'' said Thompson. "You set your rates ... you can compete on price, on hours ... who's the oppressor?"

Lisa Thompson cited "our frustrations at the regulatory level," meaning state and county licensing agencies, and allowed that "in many cases," government is the "oppressor" for providers.

"Well, on that I suspect we agree,'' said Thompson, the assistant Senate majority leader.

"What's a union? It's a vehicle, an organizing vehicle, for people to pursue joint interests,'' said Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. Medical associations and bar associations perform similar functions, he said. The Minnesota Licensed Family Child Care Association performs that role for in-home child care providers.

These providers are not covered by state labor law applying to public employees, a House researcher concluded, and might also be outside of federal labor law applying to private employers. But Sojourner said that while organizing them does not fit into the traditional union model, "it fits easily into the broader sense of what a union can be.'' With declining union membership, he said, the traditional model "ain't working too well.''

Unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, which are leading this drive, are experimenting with new models. One unanswered question is whether this initiative would allow providers to independently decide whether to associate or whether they would be forced to do so by a majority of their peers.

Many people join together for mutual benefit, even people who battle unions. And everyone would agree that a good child care provider is a priceless family asset. This debate over an issue so close to home may cause Minnesotans to look again at what a union is -- and what it could be.

jim.ragsdale@startribune.com • 651-925-5042

Bachmann's rising poll numbers?

Spinning poll numbers is a time-honored tradition in politics, and Minnesota's Michele Bachmann made her contribution to the art form in a fundraising pitch Thursday to supporters.

In a reference to her presidential campaign's "rising poll numbers," Bachmann trumpeted her second-place finish this week in an American Research Group poll of Iowa Republicans. The poll put her at 15 percent, between Mitt Romney at 21 percent and Rick Perry at 14 percent.

Second place at 15 percent is certainly better than the single digits she's been posting in other state and national polls. But it's not rising when it comes to Iowa, where the same polling outfit had her leading in August with 21 percent.

KEVIN DIAZ

Tweet of the week

"It's 8:40 Tuesday morning in Seoul, South Korea. Exciting & busy trip so far. 5 flights, 6 airports, multiple cities, lots of driving." Republican Sen. Jeremy Miller, who is joining Gov. Mark Dayton on a trade mission.