Far from the all-night drama of the State Capitol or the legal battling in the courtroom, the fight over unionizing in-home child-care providers has come into the communities and homes of those who must keep order in a houseful of preschoolers.

The debate, part of a national battle that has occurred in more than 15 states over the past decade, is turning caregivers by day into rabble-rousers by night. An election with no set date has both sides scrambling to ensure their supporters are qualified to vote, whenever it happens. The debate over whether the union model applies to small private businesses is less visible, but no less intense.

"It is a really hot-button issue," said Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, speaking at an anti-unionization event she hosted in Savage last week. "It affects something so personal — parenting and caring for children."

"We do not have a voice at the table," passionate union supporter Karla Scapanski told providers at a meeting in her Sauk Rapids living room last week. "Give us a chance to have the vote."

A law passed after a 17-hour debate in the Minnesota Senate in May, and which survived its first legal challenge this summer, allows an election at any time within four years for both child-care workers and personal-care attendants. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which is trying to unionize child-care providers, can trigger the election by presenting signed cards of 30 percent of the group.

Neither AFSCME nor the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose work with personal-care attendants is far less controversial, have said when they will pull the election trigger. For now, door-knocking and living-room rallying have defined the battle.

Skunks vs. bears

Scapanski brought the child-care union movement into her own living room one evening last week, telling a group of providers that they face a government-regulation system that can act like an angry bear.

Comparing the 10 providers at a gathering of the Benton County Child Care Providers Together to skunks being threatened by the bear, she said: "Until we get a big stink out here going on, that bear is going to keep dumping on us."

A regional leader of the child-care union movement who worked for the unionization law at the Capitol, Scapanski extolled the virtues of collective action to face government regulators on more equal footing.

This discussion focused on the details of regulations that providers sometimes see as micromanaging: The need to keep toddlers nearby even when taking another child to use the restroom, the proper way to clean a diaper-changing table, the need for regular recertifications on such topics as car-seat use, and food service rules specifying even such details as the number of grapes in a child's serving.

Joan Wenning of Holdingford said the rules can defy common sense, yet providers have little chance of prevailing if they challenge an adverse ruling. Kelly Martini of Avon and others said they worry about being issued a "correction order" for a technical violation that could damage their reputation and require costly expenditures.

A seat at the table with state and county regulators, with a powerful union such as AFSCME behind them, was regarded as preferable to the independent, private-business model union opponents extol.

Scapanski vowed that she would "go out and knock on doors" in hopes of countering what she believes is a campaign of misinformation by union opponents. Her message is that the union is not an alien force seeking raw political power, as opponents contend, but the expression of the will of the women gathered in her living room.

"It's us! We're the union! It's not an outside entity! We are it!" Scapanski said.

Getting registered

When their child-care duties are done for the day, Hollee Saville of St. Michael and Becky Swanson of Lakeville often take to the road to sound the warning about unionization, which they oppose as ardently as Scapanski supports it. They told a dozen or so providers in a scenic community center in Savage last week that providers must register to accept children from the state subsidy program, known as C-CAP, in order to have a vote.

"If you want to vote, yes or no, get yourself C-CAP-approved," said Swanson, whose day job involves caring for eight boys and one girl. "That's my job," she said. "That's what I'm fighting for."

Unlike Scapanski, who sought to unite the providers against a common foe, Saville pointed out the benefits of retaining their independence. "We are independent, self-employed, small-business owners, and set our own wages, hours and conditions," she said, an oft-repeated refrain among those opposing unionization.

Their message, coupled a call to join the battle, clearly resonated at this event.

"I don't see anything they would offer me," said Laurie Cornelius of the union. She and her daughter, Erin Henney, who came to the meeting with Henney's infant son, Gavin, are licensed providers in Savage. Both were concerned that unlicensed providers, who are not bound by the same rules as licensed providers, could make up the majority of the union electorate. "I don't agree with the way they are voting," Cornelius said. "I think it should be across-the-board."

Henney, who previously worked with low-income parents seeking subsidized child care in Ramsey County, worries that options for those parents would decline if providers drop subsidized coverage to escape unionization. "We've already seen those struggles for those families," she said.

Gary Moore, who works with his wife in a licensed family child care in Burnsville, said he generally supports unions, but opposes this effort."I'm pro-AFSCME," Moore said. "The point is, the way you did it. They came in and they cut 65 percent of the people out from the vote, or more."

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042