Union efforts to organize Minnesota’s private day-care workers producing heated arguments

The rhetoric surrounding efforts of two unions to organize day-care providers is scorching.

The conservative organization, Minnesota Majority, fired off this message to its followers regarding efforts of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union to organize day-care operations:

“We have heard the stories of union thuggery taking place throughout our nation. Now imagine having members of these same unions in your home or child’s daycare center!”

Tony Sutton, chairman of the state’s Republican Party, had this to say in a statement: “Let’s be honest: AFSCME and SEIU are not interested in creating a better environment for children in daycare. They are interested in the potential union dues of 12,000 new members, much of which is funneled into campaign contributions to political candidates, including our governor, willing to do the union’s bidding — even if that means daycare providers will raise prices on parents to compensate providers for union dues.”

House Republican leaders Kurt Zellers and Matt Dean wrote to Gov. Mark Dayton telling him that signing an executive order placing day-care providers in unions would be beyond the scope of his power. Beyond that, they wrote: “Simply put, the action you are proposing to take will kill jobs in Minnesota and increase costs to Minnesota families. This would be unwise given the current economic conditions we face in Minnesota.”

Republican legislators are joining the fray, with both the Senate and the House planning to hold “informational hearings” on the issue.

The House is up first. The Health Human Services Reform Committee, headed by Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, and the Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee, headed by Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, will hold a hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday in Room 200 of the Capitol.

The title of that hearing may give a hint of the committee’s view on the subject: “Unionization of Private, In-Home Child Care Providers.”

The Senate also has announced that it will hold “hearings” and had one scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday but is holding off so interested parties could attend both sessions. Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, and Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, will lead the Senate hearing.

Sen. Mike Parry

Sen. Mike Parry

As of late Tuesday morning, union leaders said they had not been invited to participate in the hearings.

Eric Lehto, organizing director for AFSCME, has a fiery response:

“They [conservatives] say they love kids but then cut programs that help the kids of working class families.”

Rhetoric obscuring big issues
Lost in the heat were the big issues (the declining state subsidy to support day care for low-income families) and the more subtle issues as well, including efforts to create a union movement in keeping with the times.

The only providers who would be affected by this organizing effort are those who operate small day-care operations from their own homes.

Although day-care providers are organized in 14 states and organizing efforts have been under way in Minnesota since 2005, it is coming to a head now for a couple of reasons:

• As part of the state’s effort to balance the budget, the day-care subsidy program for lower-income families was cut. Those cuts not only affect families but also day-care providers. This reality has made many — though certainly not all — day-care providers interested in signing cards stating they approve of the idea of joining a union. After all, higher subsidies to families should mean higher pay for day-care services.

• Dayton has succeeded Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who never would have entertained the idea of signing any document that would have extended unionization to any organization.

Pawlenty, it should be noted, inadvertently helped spur the union drive by once referring to day-care providers as “babysitters.”

That was a nice set up for organizers such as AFSCME’s Lehto. Day-care providers, he says, “have to have the wisdom of a parent, the knowledge of a teacher, the heart of a social worker, the healing power of a nurse and the business savvy of an entrepreneur.”

Eric Lehto

Eric Lehto

For his part, Dayton hasn’t been clear on how, when or if he’ll deal with the issue. He has made it clear that he won’t authorize anything until providers actually vote on joining unions.

Dayton’s proclamation is a disappointment to union organizers who believe that Dayton has the authority to simply sign off on a unionizing effort, once a majority of the providers have signed cards authorizing unionization.

AFSCME, the organizing union in the metro area and areas north in the state, has independent auditors’ statements showing it has had cards from a majority of providers in its areas since last December.

SEIU, which has been organizing in regions south of the metro, says it is “close” to having a majority of the providers signing cards.

It is not yet clear whether providers who don’t want to become part of the union would be forced to join in the future. Nor is it clear whether SEIU and AFSCME would each represent a segment of the providers.

In the midst of the political rhetoric, there are three major players.

Most importantly, there are parents and their kids. Then, there are the providers. Finally, there are the unions and their efforts to create a new class of organized workers. Here’s how each group could be affected.

The state’s child-care assistance program, a function of the Department of Human Services, is budgeted to pay out $436.2 million this biennium, a 2 per cent decrease from the previous biennium. Those funds come from both the state and federal government.

Parents who are working or attending school are eligible for the day-care subsidies if they qualify (the basic sliding-fee program means earning 47 percent of the state median income, which amounted to $32,944 in fiscal 2010). Those earning 67 percent of the state median income ($46,963) were eligible for subsidy support under the child care assistance program.

Hard economic times have created more need of help for more families in terms of child care. And studies have shown that early childhood learning is crucial to later educational success.

That means the pressure is on for parents to find the “right place” for their kids.

For two fundamental reasons, the vast majority of kids in day care are placed in small, in-home centers. The in-home operations are considerably less expensive than the free-standing centers. Additionally, the larger centers are virtually non-existent in much of Minnesota.

Currently, there are about 80,000 children in the larger day-care centers and about 180,000 in the house-on-the-corner operations. About 30,000 children a month are members of families receiving subsidy help.

Foes of the organizing efforts say that unionization of the small operations would raise costs to families who, in many cases, already cannot afford child care.

The unions counter that they would give day-care operators a stronger presence at the Capitol in raising subsidy levels, which currently are below federal recommendations. Larger subsidy programs, the unions argue, would benefit more Minnesota kids.

The unions insist they would not establish the rate families pay to operators. Rates will continue to be a private negotiation between operators and families.

Harsh economic realities means the number of those small day-care providers has shrunk from a high of around 14,000 a few years ago to about 11,000.

The brutal economy has meant that many families — even with the help of subsidies — simply can’t afford day care. Before this year’s cut to subsidies, there was a freeze on day-care subsidies dating k to 2006.

Those two factors have spelled the demise of many small day-care operations, even though the need remains high.

But it is those economic realities that have created the split among day-care operators over whether union organization would be a savior or simply another burden.

Organizers argue that a union presence can help improve the economic climate for these small businesses. For starters, there would be a stronger voice at the Capitol.

Additionally, though, they point out that they could help with such things as health care. At the least, unions argue, they could set up a large health care purchasing pool that would lower costs. Perhaps, in the case of AFSCME, those day-care operators even could end up on state employee programs, a thought that makes Republicans twitch.

“That could mean $10,000 to $15,000 a year in benefits,” said Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, in a recent radio interview.

Rep. Keith Downey

Rep. Keith Downey

Downey, a foe of this organizing effort, consistently stands in opposition to issues supported by unions.

Finally, the unions argue they could help in training small day-care operators as expectations of what day-care centers provide children rise.

Currently, there are surprisingly minimal requirements for a license to operate a day-care facility. Operators must pass a criminal background check, offer a safe environment, take some basic training and be willing to open the door to drop-in inspection.

But far more sophisticated child-care ratings systems are surely part of the future as expectations rise for pre-kindergarten training. That likely means a more competitive environment for operators in the near future.

The unions
Obviously, the addition of 11,000 new members — or even half that number for each of two unions — is a powerful incentive for both AFSCME and SEIU. But, just as obviously, unions can’t survive unless they provide a service to members.

The unions say they can deliver those services.

But there’s a bigger issue in this drive — and the efforts to block it.

In many ways, these small day-care operations represent the new U.S. workplace, one filled with independent contractors. For better or worse, more and more companies are relying on contract employees to do work once done by full-time employees, who drew wages, benefits, perhaps even pensions. (Some of the journalists at MinnPost, for example, work as contract employees.)

Presumably this workplace model is only going to grow as large companies look for ways to cut costs.

Unions go where the workers are.

“This campaign reflects an effort within the labor movement to develop a strategy and form that responds to the structural reorganization of work and employment under neo-liberalism,” said Peter Rachleff, a labor historian and professor at Macalester.

Isolated contract employees have similar interests but virtually no voice, Rachleff and other union advocates point out.

He can imagine a future in which these independent employees organize and create many traditional union backdrops.

Independent contractors, he said, could “organize hiring halls, keep lists of bad employers, lobby for laws which would extend protections of various sorts and lobby for state funds for social services.”

It is this bigger picture, efforts by unions to expand, that likely is the reason for the scorching rhetoric.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/21/2011 - 08:45 am.

    Our economy will remain in the tank until wages and salaries can sustain consumer spending. History has shown the only way American workers can get living wages out of their employers is to pry them from their cold clinched fists with collective bargaining. That’s just the way it is. If a business can’t pay a living wage, it’s not a viable business.

  2. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 09/21/2011 - 09:08 am.

    Let’s all remember the reason these kids are in daycare instead of working in a cannery is because of unions.

  3. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 09/21/2011 - 09:13 am.

    Another observation: one of the more fascinating things about the conservative brain is its inability to understand the motivations of the rest of us. Evil scientists lie about global warming to get their greedy hands on grant money; teachers are willing to give up all autonomy and judgment in their classrooms to compete for bonuses over standardized test scores; and union thugs have a clever scheme to get rich off the backs of poor-as-dirt day care providers. Apparently they think, like them, we’re motivated only by money, except we’re REALLY bad at it.

  4. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/21/2011 - 09:45 am.

    My ex does home daycare and makes a good, but hard working living at it. She did it when we were married for about 9 years. There is an agency that makes referrals to licensed daycares. There was another program that subsidised the meals she provided. She has an excellent tax person that gets her huge tax deductions, all legal. She sets her own rates, does a good enough job to replenish her kids through referrals from other parents in addtion to that agency I mentioned. I fail to see what a union would do for her, although in principle I suppoort unions in many areas of the economy. It also seems like a contradiction to be an owner of a business and in a union at the same time.

    On the other hand I think the brutality with which the Republicans have attacked the lower middle class is partly responsible for this. They slash subsidies in order to protect their rich benefactors. They fight affordable health coverage. One huge disadvantage to a single woman doing home daycare is that she can’t get affordable health coverage, someething that nationalized health coverage could have addressed. Our kids are covered through my job’s coverage but she has none. Since most people start that job because they have little kids and can’t afford to pay for daycare, this creates a dangersous situation where you are one major illness or accident away from living in a homeless shelter. That is one big thing that the greedy, tea party, not my money types ignore.

    So before the right wingers on this site come in with their hyper negative language about union thuggery I want to say I don’t understand nor support this bill. It is a misguided attempt to help people who need help, people the Republican party has been attacking for many years.

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/21/2011 - 09:47 am.

    #4, I doubt anyone in Minnesota pays 300 for one kid in home day care, but that is probably an average rate for two kids.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/21/2011 - 09:59 am.

    “..efforts to create a union movement in keeping with the times.”

    Translation: “We’ve pretty much drained the last drop of blood out of the US manufacturing industry, and there’s no profit in picking the pockets of janitors, so it’s time to dive into the bottomless well of taxpayer money.”

  7. Submitted by Joseph Skar on 09/21/2011 - 10:01 am.

    How much do you want daycare to cost? Is $300+ a week not prohibitive enough? Is the goal to force a single income household so one parent needs to say home. How many households have an extra 15k laying around to pay the current rates let alone 350+ so we can pay for “representation”.

  8. Submitted by Bruce Leier on 09/21/2011 - 10:19 am.

    Headline is VERY misleading. It should be: PRIVATE DAY-CARE WORKERS EFFORTS TO FORM A UNION PRODUCING HEATED ARGUMENTS. Why do the people involved get dismissed like this? I hope you didn’t write the headline, Doug. I believe you are a better journalist than that.

  9. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/21/2011 - 10:19 am.

    Thank you, Mr Swift, for proving the point of my last paragraph. It is my opinion that the reason so many conservatives hate the government is for the pure greed of wanting to hold onto every midas-squeezing last cent of their money while others pay to maintain a just and decent society. Follow the tea party to its natural endpoint and you get Clockwork Orange.

    Your comment offers nothing to this discussion other than to vent your spleen. Hope that’s not too negative for the moderator.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/21/2011 - 11:31 am.

    So your having trouble paying for daycare because you and your spouse are working as st-will employees for to little money. The solution isn’t for low paid workers to balance their budgets on the backs of other low paid workers. The solution is to raise wages and salaries for everyone, and one way to do that is collective bargaining. We dumped trillion of dollars on the wealthy over the last several decades and their response has been to turn off the trickle. The money’s there, go get it.

  11. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/21/2011 - 12:37 pm.

    Pretty simplistic there Paul. The solution is to raise everyone’s wages? Everyone’s wages go up, prices go up; that is simple math. I agree the economy has gotten out of balance with the wealthy becoming more so while the rest of us fall behind, but your snap-of-the-fingers answer won’t work for individuals making family decisions today.

    Also the point of this unionizing effort isn’t to raise the wages of the day care providers, they set their own wages and prices and from what I’ve seen they set them according to market condiditons – like location, licensed vs unlicensed, home versus center. All I saw in this article was that a union would provide a “voice” at the legislature for home daycare providers, not set wages. From what I’ve seen the major setback for home daycare providers is lack of affordable health insurance. If they run their business well they should make a living. There are already plenty of “voices” at the legislature and in congress trying to help get people like this affordable health care, they are just being ignored by the Republicans in power. Don’t see where this union will help that effort be more successful.

  12. Submitted by Matty Lang on 09/21/2011 - 01:40 pm.

    To help Bill with his understanding of how a union can help child care workers I will highlight the following quote from Doug’s article:

    “Additionally, though, they point out that they could help with such things as health care. At the least, unions argue, they could set up a large health care purchasing pool that would lower costs. Perhaps, in the case of AFSCME, those day-care operators even could end up on state employee programs, a thought that makes Republicans twitch. “

  13. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/21/2011 - 02:42 pm.

    I saw that, Matty, and thought I acknowledged it. I don’t believe you will ever get nongovernment employees on state employee health programs, especially not with this legislature or in this political climate.

    I would have to see exactly what kind of health care plan the union was offering before I’d endorse it and it would have to be comparable to what I get as an employee at a company that offers a typical health plan. Why couldn’t these daycare providers join some plan that that union already has, unless the union doesn’t already do this for other memebers. It sounds like a very vague promise to me.

  14. Submitted by Chelle Blakely on 09/21/2011 - 03:11 pm.

    The question I have not seen answered is how is the Governor involved in all this. Normal union representation issues are regulated by complex laws. I have never seen one like this that involves an executive order. I am not on either side of this debate, I sincerely do not understand it. If the day care providers want a union, what is their process?

  15. Submitted by sally desmarais on 09/21/2011 - 04:39 pm.

    Home day care providers in NJ are unionized only if they receive public subsidies as payment for eligible families for their child care. They are already in the union unless they “opt” out. The dues are taken right out of the payment by the State of NJ before the payment is made to the provider. NJ then sends the money to the union ..Opting out is almost impossible bc u have to contact the union office to do so (good luck). As much as $10 a month or more comes out of the check each month (based on how much you earn) — translates over time millions for the union. Unions were exec. ordered in NJ by Corzine in 2007 and right before he left office the NJ Leg. signed this into law (CC surely would have reversed). No health care, not much of anything after 4 years ( they are just taking there money ) – terrible idea and providers did not benefit one bit !

  16. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 09/21/2011 - 04:47 pm.

    I have no problem at all if private daycare providers want to unionize if that is their choice. However, I don’t think it’s fair to force providers into a union they don’t want to join. And I would really object if Minnesota did what California did to its providers who didn’t want to be part of the union. California confiscated union dues from the checks the providers received from the state for caring for poor children. In other words, providers who were not members of the union were forced to pay union dues anyway. Fortunately enough people complained that the state backed off.
    I also believe that prices the providers charge families will go up once they become part of a union. It is inevitable.

  17. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/21/2011 - 08:41 pm.

    These people are literally and figuratively in favor of the Nanny State.

    “They [conservatives] say they love kids but then cut programs that help the kids of working class families.”

    The leftists equate the size and power of government with how much people love their kids.

  18. Submitted by Patrick Guernsey on 09/22/2011 - 10:53 pm.

    Home Daycare providers are professionals. Having a union will allow them to band together for health insurance, training, and basic pre kindergarten programming. For every dollar we spend on early childhood development, we get $17 back. Quality early care and education can close the achievement gap, which is good for everyone. AFSCME union dues are around $40 per month. That isn’t going to make childcare unaffordable for anyone. Workers who join unions have a voice at work. That is what childcare workers want and why they will choose a union.

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