Home health care workers took the first step in their push for higher wages and benefits Tuesday, seeking a union election for about 26,000 personal care attendants in Minnesota.

Union officials said it could be one of the largest organizing drives in state history.

Flanked by clients with disabilities, pro-union workers rallied in the parking lot of the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services in St. Paul to announce their intention to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Minnesota.

Earlier in the day, they had presented the bureau with about 9,000 signed cards, triggering a union election later this summer that could be one of the largest in state history.

Several said that forming a union is their best chance to improve wages, benefits and the quality of life for them and the people for whom they care.

"I had a hysterectomy and went to work the following day, because missing work means my children do not eat," said Shaquonica Johnson, a home health care worker from Brooklyn Park. "I am here today because for too long, the work … of caring for our neighbors [and] keeping seniors and people with disabilities in their homes and communities has been made invisible, and when we win our union, we will finally be invisible no more."

Their drive could prove to be an uphill battle. It comes at a time when the state of Minnesota is trying to hold down health care costs and workers have had little success in pressing for higher wage subsidies. It also follows a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could make it harder for home health care unions to finance their operations.

About 26,000 of Minnesota's enrolled 109,000 personal care attendants would be eligible to vote in the SEIU election. They are primarily those who work for people whose care is covered by Medicaid dollars.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national median hourly wage for personal health care attendants — both those who work in homes and care facilities — was $10.09 as of May 2013. That translates to a median annual salary of $20,990. The median wage for Minnesota attendants was higher — $11.09 per hour, or a salary of $23,060.

Those gathered Tuesday in St. Paul appeared undeterred by last month's Supreme Court decision that thousands of home health care workers in Illinois can't be required to pay fees that help cover a union's costs of collective bargaining. The court said that while the workers are paid through state subsidies to provide care, they are not full state employees and do not have to pay union dues.

"There's no impact on us," said Sumer Spika, a St. Paul personal care attendant. "The decision really affirms that we have the right to form a union and the right to collectively bargain."

Strong feelings on both sides

In 2013, Minnesota legislators gave both child care providers and personal care attendants the power to vote on whether to form a union.

Most Republicans opposed the move, and some seized the opportunity Tuesday to take a jab at Gov. Mark Dayton, who supported it.

"Hardworking Minnesotans shouldn't be forced to join a union or pay dues against their will, and once again, it's clear by this announcement that Governor Dayton has sided with liberal special-interest groups," said Kurt Zellers, who was state House speaker when Dayton backed unionization efforts. Zellers now is a GOP candidate for governor.

Neil Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota HomeCare Association, which represents about 230 agencies, said he doubts that forming a union will help home workers in the long run.

Most home workers' pay is dictated by heavily regulated state and federal programs like Medicaid, he said. Without increases in those venues, most won't experience much financial gain, even with a union, he said.

"If you're making $10 an hour, how much can you really afford to pay in union dues?" he said.

Still, many home care workers say they believe that forming a union will help them get to higher wages. And higher wages would help reduce the high turnover rate that plagues the industry, they said.

Nikki Villavicencio, who uses a wheelchair and receives home care help, said she witnesses the hardships attendants endure because of low pay. She wants conditions to improve, she said, both for them and for her family.

"The high turnover in the field from the low pay and lack of benefits causes turmoil for families," she said. "The current conditions make me wonder, why is this field so undervalued?"