A vote by secret ballot is the only appropriate way to decide whether Minnesota's 11,000 home day care workers should be unionized. This week, Gov. Mark Dayton smartly bucked ill-advised pressure from traditional labor allies to circumvent such an election through an executive order.

The controversial drive to make Minnesota the 15th state to have unionized day care workers has been five years in the making and comes as the nation's overall union membership has declined to 11.9 percent of workers in 2010, down from 12.3 percent the year before. In 1983, that figure stood at 20.1, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Doing an election end-run through an executive order is no way to thwart this trend. The already low-wage workers who might be obligated to pay union dues -- and it's unclear exactly which child care workers would pay or how much dues would be -- should vote privately on this critical issue.

Leaning on the governor to unilaterally recognize a child-care union at best looks like overreach by the two powerful labor groups leading the child-care unionization drive -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

At worst, it looks like a money grab for new dues and an attempt to collect a campaign support IOU from Dayton. Even a small amount of dues collected from public child care subsidies -- about $218 million a year in Minnesota -- would add up to a substantial sum.

AFSCME officials told an editorial writer that the push is not about dues, but about helping child care workers and struggling kids.

The two well-known labor organizations, which claim to have collected thousands of signed cards of support from workers, should have known better than to seek unionization by decree.

Although other Democratic governors have issued executive orders or aided child care unionization in other ways, these actions have been controversial and generated at least one high-profile legal challenge in Michigan. If unionization is really a good deal, an election would prove it.

It's not clear when or how the state's child care workers might cast a vote. Between now and then, workers should ask hard questions of the unions as well as those who seek to undermine this push. Is the opposition based on ideology or is there something more substantive?

The issues get convoluted quickly, because independent day care providers don't operate in a traditional worker-employer environment. Who is the employer the union would negotiate with? Who would pay for benefits -- such as health care -- that might be enhanced by union membership? How much would dues be? And which child care workers would pay dues?

Union officials' lack of clarity about dues and who would pay doesn't help them make their case.

Generally, union representation for child care workers looks more like a lobbying or advocacy arrangement. Unions say they wouldn't negotiate with individual parents but would bargain with the state to enhance child-care subsidies provided to low-income families, as well as enhance workers' training.

But there are already lobbying organizations in the state for child care providers that offer many training opportunities. And in this state budget climate, is it realistic to expect an increase in funding? Data is also needed to address fears that unionization would increase parents' costs.

Child care workers need to decide for themselves if union membership is worth it. Dayton rightly left the decision to them.

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