Q: I read this week that a Ramsey County District Court judge halted an election called by Gov. Mark Dayton in which day-care workers were to vote whether to unionize. I’m confused. How did a judge and an elected official get involved? Aren’t union organizing campaigns a matter for an employer and its employees?
A: I feel your befuddlement. This particular drama is populated by plenty of proletarians and petite bourgeoisie, but the big bad capitalists seem to be hidden by a phalanx of politicians. It might be easiest just to start in the beginning.
In the waning days of the last millennium, the American worker faced a contradictory bundle of challenges. A changing economy, welfare reform and a host of other factors had propelled parents of both genders into the work force, leaving a poorly paid, unevenly trained underclass to care for the kids.
Forget health insurance, retirement and a living wage, family day-care providers had zero say over lots of policies that had a big influence over their work. They had no say on setting the state subsidies their low-income neighbors used to pay them, no say over rules regarding their training or their physical space, and no champions in the political arena.
The champions — unions — had problems, too. The traditional job, which created and fueled that whole worker-boss dichotomy, was becoming an endangered species. But Americans remained hard at work, more and more often as contract employees (a category that includes many MinnPost contributors), sole proprietors and odd-jobbers.
Instead of being dependent on employers, many were dependent on government to create the policies that would make or break their very small businesses — sending ripples into the ranks of the worker bees that patronized their services.
Organized labor began exploring ways to unionize people who do not hold jobs. Initial efforts throughout the country have focused on some of those with the lowest pay and least power: private child-care providers and home health aides.
In Minnesota, the 6-year-old effort has been led by the Service Employees International local 284 and AFSCME Council 5.
Q: So they’re looking to bargain collectively with the state?
A: Not so much. They want many of the things their union brethren enjoy — a voice in establishing working conditions, setting pay rates, access to benefits — but instead of getting them via a contract they are seeking a seat at the policymaking table.
And because kids benefit from better care, they’ve got a compelling argument that the state and its citizens should want them there. In 15 states — Michigan and Connecticut are oft-mentioned examples — Democratic governors have stepped into the odd vacuum created by that missing employer and certified their unionization by executive order.
Naturally, all hell breaks loose when they do, and no one has yet worked through enough of the wrinkles for there to be anything approaching a tried and tested roadmap for how to organize stand-alone service providers.
Q: I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a DFL governor sided with labor.
A: You’re forgiven for assuming as much. But Dayton stopped far short of doing what the local locals wanted him to [PDF]. Feeling that the potential union members should decide for themselves, he issued an executive order [PDF] directing the state Bureau of Mediation, which is where the pocket-protector set that guards the state’s labor laws, to hold an election of licensed family child-care providers registered to receive subsidy payments from the state Child Care Assistance Programs.
Some 4,000 of Minnesota’s 11,000 family providers would be eligible to vote [PDF]. If a majority voted to unionize, representation would entitle them to “meet and confer” with bureaucrats at the departments of Education and Health and Human Services. That’s a form of collective bargaining, right?
In this case, a “yes” vote would not compel day-care providers to join the union or pay dues. The naysayers and non-joiners could not, however, go off and join a different one.
Q: OK, so Dayton’s an equal opportunity disappointer. Where does he get off end-running the Legislature, which even I know is controlled by a party that hates unions, and issuing an executive order? Isn’t that an abuse of power?
A: Maybe. Governors and presidents are generally entitled to issue orders so long as lawmakers have written the law that makes the orders legal. Electeds from both parties do it; if they couldn’t, things would grind to a halt.
This year’s Legislature refused to vote to make an early-childhood-program quality ratings system that had been piloted into a statewide initiative. But neither did legislators repeal the law creating the pilot. Et voila, we’re getting a ratings system.
Q: So we’re getting a day-care union?
A: Maybe. Back by some of the same conservative groups that opposed the aforementioned quality ratings system, some of the providers who are not eligible to vote sued. They argue that Dayton exceeded his authority and the limit on who can vote is unconstitutional.
Earlier this week, the judge hearing the case issued a temporary order halting the balloting, which was to begin by mail Dec. 6. From the bench, Judge Dale Lindman said that at least on first blush, he agreed with the plaintiffs.
But he has yet to issue a written opinion, so it’s impossible to re-create his interpretation of the statutes Dayton relied on in crafting his executive order. And he may change his mind after a Jan. 16 hearing.
Q: So why don’t the providers just start lobbying? Any John or Jane Q. Public is entitled to do that — and for free.
A: Well, there is that whole matter of the changing American work force. But after that we’re veering into speculative territory here.
One advantage to a union is it has the scratch to field actual professional lobbyists. Day-care workers? They may understand the roots of the achievement gap and the frustrations of the working family better than anyone, but they are busy, busy, busy making single-digit hourly wages wiping your little darlings’ — ah, noses.
And who could blame the persecuted union, which other governors would just as soon do away with altogether, for looking for purchases on even the most slender outcroppings? A seat at the table is a seat at the table.
Q: Fat lot of clarity you’ve delivered for me.
A: Guilty as charged. But I promise you this: We’ll stay on the case, and as soon as someone in authority pronounces on this whole issue of statutory authority, we’ll get back to you.