The DFL Legislature eked out a major victory for organized labor Monday, giving in-home child-care providers and personal care attendants the right to unionize at a time when union power is in full retreat in many state capitols.

The Minnesota House, acting as the last hours of the Legislative session were ticking down, approved the unionization measure by a bare 68-66 majority and sent it to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who is expected to sign it.

Announcement of the vote produced a burst of cheers from purple-and green-shirted union supporters in the House gallery, followed by angry denunciations of the breach of House decorum. "We're not in charge — let them applaud," said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, as he stalked out of the chamber. "They own the place!"

The vote does not immediately unionize anyone. It does allow an estimated 21,000 home workers to decide whether to join a union. That includes child-care providers who operate private businesses in their own homes, and personal care attendants — known as PCAs — who care for elderly and disabled people in the clients' homes.

Because such workers want to negotiate with the state over subsidies, training, benefits and other issues, they needed a state law to allow them to consider unionizing.

The bill was a top priority for two unions that are a big part of the DFL coalition: The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, which is organizing child-care workers, and the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, which is organizing PCAs.

The vote culminates an eight-year effort that has divided the normally placid business of caring for children into highly politicized camps of union supporters and union foes.

"This has gotta be the best day in my life for a very long time," Karla Scapanski, a Sauk Rapids child-care provider, said as union supporters around her at the Capitol sang "Solidarity Forever." Said Scapanski: "The more we get together and stand up for what's important to us, the stronger we are."

Hollee Saville, a child-care provider and union opponent from St. Michael, was near tears.

"We're very disappointed that the legislators who voted yes on this chose to steal our freedoms and our rights as independent business owners and sell them off to the unions for the highest bid," Saville said.

Opponents have already started mapping out legal challenges.

Bill Messenger, a lawyer for the Virginia-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said he will file suit on behalf of Minnesota providers who oppose the union, alleging that the law forces care workers to unionize and violates their right of freedom of association.

Reversing the trend for labor

Unions nationally have lost battles over right-to-work laws and public-employee bargaining in Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan.

Minnesota, with a DFL-controlled Legislature elected with strong union support in November, is moving in the other direction.

"When you consider what's happening all around the country, where there's an assault on organized labor ... this is one of the first states to actually reverse that trend and expand organized labor," said DFL State Chair Ken Martin.

The issue was highly emotional, politically potent and had the potential to chew up scarce floor time. It produced a record 17-hour, dusk-till-dawn debate in the Senate last week. House foes filed enough amendments to filibuster the issue right through the midnight adjournment deadline on Monday. But DFL and GOP leaders agreed to reasonable limits on the highly charged rhetoric so the session could wind down.

"We see government at its ugliest and most brutish," said Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, during the House debate. She called it a case of "big government and big unions double-teaming small businesses." Opponents saw the bill as a payoff for unions that contribute heavily to DFL candidates and causes and that now want to add dues-paying members.

"Providers all over Minnesota are so engaged on this issue," said Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, a former child-care provider and opponent of the bill.

"They want to continue their version of the American dream."

Defenders of the bill say it is part of a historical union struggle to improve workers' lives, particularly in female-dominated jobs such as nursing, teaching and now caring for children and the elderly. They emphasized that the bill does not require unionization of anyone, but merely calls for an election.

"I believe this bill is a way to address inequality," said Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, who also noted that a previous GOP-controlled Legislature had recently sought to cut both the child-care subsidy program and PCA payments.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, talked about the importance of the union to her autoworker father, and compared that to her mother's low wages doing nonunion work, such as cleaning houses and working in a grocery store.

"If we pass this law, all we're saying is, it's their choice," Murphy said.