In one of Minnesota's largest labor organizing efforts since the Depression, home care workers across the state on Tuesday voted to join the Service Employees International Union, giving that organization the power to bargain on their behalf.

The vote is the culmination of one of the most sweeping union expansion efforts in Minnesota history and represents a victory for Gov. Mark Dayton and the DFL-controlled Legislature, who pushed through legislation that enabled the certification vote.

Workers and those they care for erupted in cheers and chants of "When we fight, we win!" when results were announced at the labor pavilion on the Minnesota State Fair grounds Tuesday.

"We have been working toward this day for many years," said Sumer Spika, of St. Paul, a home care worker and SEIU campaign leader. "We've seen the stories of the lack of benefits and training and the low pay facing home care workers. We know what this does to Minnesota families and we know that it needs to change."

But Tuesday's vote hardly represents a majority of home care workers in the state, and the controversial action is all but certain to trigger a legal challenge.

Nearly 27,000 of the state's enrolled 109,000 personal care attendants were eligible to vote in the election — primarily those who work for people whose care is covered by the federal Medicaid program. Only 5,872 workers — 21 percent of those eligible — cast ballots. However, the threshold requires only a majority of ballots cast. Of those who voted, 60 percent opted to join the union.

The vote makes the United Home Care Workers the largest unit in Minnesota to seek union certification since the Wagner Act was passed in 1935. Minnesota now joins 14 other states where home care workers are represented by unions.

A parallel battle is raging between attempts by Minnesota day care providers to unionize under the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). A lawsuit on behalf of Minnesota child care providers to stop the unionization is on hold pending an election, but Jennifer Parrish, a Rochester day care provider and leader of the Coalition of Union Free Providers, said they have a chance of stopping that election. "This election was a clear sign of exactly why we don't want the union to take place." she said.

Higher wages expected

Workers who supported the action say unionization will usher in better training, higher pay and more stability in a notoriously high-turnover profession, which they contend will translate to better client care.

The low turnout is indicative of the "tyranny of a small majority," said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation.

"No one is opposing the right of individual home-care providers to freely associate with the union if they so choose, but the issue raised in this legal challenge is whether those individuals who don't want anything to do with the union can have it imposed on them." he said in a statement.

The vote comes after nine home health care workers sued in July to block the union vote. A federal judge ruled last week that the plaintiffs could not sue until workers elected to unionize. Mix said the organization will continue with its lawsuit.

Spika said the union is braced for legal challenges, but defended Tuesday's victory.

"The majority wins, and the majority of people that voted, voted yes to form a union," she said. "We are proud to move forward." She noted that in the recent state primary, turnout barely topped 10 percent of eligible voters.

Scott Price, of Andover, one of the plaintiffs on the lawsuit, is ready to keep fighting. The father of an adult daughter with cerebral palsy, he provides care a few hours a week and also pays a worker to care for her under a state program. Price called the unionization efforts misguided.

"I don't want a union in my house; that's why I agreed to join the lawsuit," Price said. "I don't need a union. They can't help me."

Nikki Villavicencio, an advocate for people with disabilities and a vocal supporter of home care unionization had a different view.

Her voice shaking with emotion as she took the microphone while in her wheelchair, Villavicencio told the crowd at the fairgrounds that, "when home care workers are struggling to survive, having to work multiple jobs and still barely being able to feed their families, families like mine see it firsthand — the hardship that it causes for both their lives and for ours." Villavicencio and her husband, Darrell Paulsen, rely on care aides at their home in Maplewood.

Personal care aides, or those who care for people with disabilities and the elderly, make a national average of $10.09 an hour, or about $20,990 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics from May 2013. Such workers are a little better paid in Minnesota, making an average of $11.09 per hour, or $23,060 yearly.

Union fees not required

In a setback for the home care union effort, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this summer that thousands of home health care workers in Illinois cannot be required to pay fees that help cover a union's costs of collective bargaining. The ruling will directly affect unionized home care workers, but Spika said signatures from 9,000 home care workers who expressed union support in Minnesota likely means the same number will pay dues.

Minnesota Republican lawmakers tentatively welcomed the new union, saying it in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, it "would be the first union in Minnesota to operate under the concept of employee freedom."

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said in a statement Tuesday that "In the unlikely event this new union survives a court challenge — which we support — it will serve as an excellent case study for how a union can operate in an employee freedom environment. If the union provides value for its members, it will survive. If it doesn't, it will lose membership and die. Either way, employees will have the freedom to make those decisions without the heavy hand of government forcing its way."

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison lauded the vote as one that "evens the playing field between employers and employees."

"Today's vote is cause for celebration," Ellison said. "Collective bargaining is essential to restoring economic mobility to American workers and rebuilding the middle class. The home health care workers' vote is a vote for fair wages, safe working conditions, and a better future."

Abby Simons • 651-925-5043