After eight years of organizing, counter-organizing and battling in the courts and the Legislature, child-care providers may be approaching the climactic moment when they will decide whether or not to form a union.

This hotly contested issue, which has flared into a major political and legal battle between the DFL and the GOP, is now the subject of a pro- and anti-union campaign in the homes of thousands of family child-care providers. A federal judge’s ruling on Sunday threw out attempts by opponents to halt the election, saying their complaints of harm were premature.

“We’ll be visiting with 12,000 child-care providers in every corner of the state,” said Jennifer Munt, spokeswoman for Council 5 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, which is organizing child-care providers. “And we’ll file for a union election once we know that we can win the election with majority support.”

“Once providers understand the facts, they don’t support unionization,” responded Jennifer Parrish, a Rochester child-care provider and union foe. “We’re going to be out there making sure providers have access to all the facts, so they can make fully informed decisions. When they make fully informed decisions, they’ll vote no.”

Many steps to unionization

The shift into high gear was stimulated by Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis’ ruling, released Sunday evening, which said lawsuits seeking to block the elections were premature. Lawyers in both cases say they could appeal Davis’ ruling or wait to challenge the unionization law once the process is farther along.

Davis accepted the argument of lawyers for the state that claims of harm suffered by child-care providers named as plaintiffs were “not ripe” because of the multi-step process to form a union. AFSCME must secure 500 signed cards to get lists of qualified providers; must get 30 percent of the same group to trigger a union election; must win the election by a majority; must negotiate a contract with the state that must be ratified by the Legislature; and must decide whether to assess dues or fees and how much.

Subsidy issue resolved

One substantive legal issue was decided in favor of the unions. Davis said it is not a constitutional violation for the new law to treat those providers caring for subsidized children differently from those without subsidized children. Only those with subsidized children can vote in the election.

Union leaders and supporters were buoyed by the all-clear signal from the courts and vowed to push hard for an election. The state estimates that 12,700 providers can vote in the election, but the union has not said when it expects the election to take place. The union could submit the required number of signed cards calling for an election any time after Aug. 1, but has nearly four years to form a union.

“We’re pushing into our ninth year now,” said provider and union leader Lisa Thompson of the likely timing of an election. “I don’t take any bets on that.”

So far, Munt said, “it’s going very well.” She said being able to appeal to both licensed and unlicensed providers helps, because unlicensed providers suffered budget cuts and “are very interested in forming a union.”

A volatile issue

She admitted that southern Minnesota, which was the turf of another union in previous union drives, is AFSCME’S greatest challenge.

“We’ve been very loud down in southern Minnesota,” said Parrish, the opposition leader. She said opponents can use the same list of providers and will be “starting a major calling effort.” Her group will be encouraging providers to “be very cautious about what they sign” and be aware of the consequences of unionization.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, a former child-care provider and an opponent of unionization, said opponents are “even more determined to beat this.” She said providers may sign up to care for subsidized children “just so they can vote no” on the union. She said she believes the issue has caught on politically and “fires constituents up all across the state of Minnesota.”

“We know the election is inevitable,” added another prominent opponent, Hollee Saville, a provider in St. Michael. She was a plaintiff in one of the suits and said refiling the lawsuit after the election is scheduled is a possibility. “This is not over. We know this is illegal and unconstitutional and is going to hurt providers and families.”

The election is seen as an exercise in democracy by union supporters. “I look forward to the opportunity to vote,” said Clarissa Johnston, a provider and union supporter in Mounds View. “People who oppose it say a majority of providers don’t want this. I don’t see that. If that’s the case, just let us vote — people can vote no.”