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Senate’s 17-hour day-care union debate shows importance of the ‘L’ in DFL

Finally, the measure — a labor priority — passed 35-32 Wednesday morning after Republicans dropped dozens of proposed amendments.

Supporters of efforts to unionize some day-care workers recently celebrated at the Capitol following legislative committee approval.
SEIU Healthcare Minnesota

There remains an “L” in the DFL, which became evident during 17 hours of heated discussion that ran from Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday morning.

During all that time, the state Senate debated a bill — and a series of hostile Republican amendments — that would allow independent day-care operators, who receive public subsidy, to organize a union.

This is a line-in-the-sand issue.

It’s an issue that Republicans believe favors them, come election time. And it’s an issue that the DFL understands that labor, the party’s longtime ally, wants.

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Republican senators, who threw up every parliamentary obstruction they could imagine to clog the debate, argued that independent day-care operators should not be “forced” to be represented by a union. DFLers, pushed hard by national and state union leaders,  argued that all workers should have the “right” to organize.  

Finally, shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday, the measure passed 35-32 after Republicans dropped from consideration dozens of other proposed amendments to the Family Child Care Providers Representation Act.

Union effort faces big hurdles

The bill now limps to the House, where labor leaders believe it will pass.

If it gets to his desk, Gov. Mark Dayton is certain to sign the bill.

Recall, two years ago, Dayton attempted to support the organizing effort by issuing an executive order calling for a vote among day care operators. A Ramsey Court judge ruled that only the Legislature could put such action in motion.

But even if the bill clears the political hurdles, there would be a long, hard road for unions to travel to successfully organize operators.

First, the Senate bill requires that 30 percent of the potential independent operators sign cards calling for a union vote. In the event of a vote, a tick beyond 50 percent of operators who opt to vote would have to approve the move to unionize.

For labor, this bill represents more than it appears. If labor is to survive, it must find a way to reach, and organize, growing numbers of independent workers and contract employees.

But even on its own, the potential impact of this bill is significant. There are roughly 11,000 independent day-care operators in the state who could end up in the Association of Federal, State and Municipal Employees Union.

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A second portion of the bill gives the Service Employees International Union the right to organize the more than 10,000 independent personal-care attendants who work in environments where the client receives public funding .

That portion of the bill was far less controversial than the portion directed toward day-care operators. The workers who could choose to join a union do not work for agencies.

The issues surrounding the proposal are philosophical, political and complex.

Heated debate, angry challenges

The debate was filled with heat and angry challenges to the Senate author, Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. Republicans had 60 amendments lined up ready to attach to a bill they despise.

Words such as “outrageous” and “fraudulent” filled the air the moment the bill was introduced. 

Sen. David Thompson, R-Lakeville, sees the action as an unholy alliance between the unions and the DFL. His belief — apparently shared by all of his GOP colleagues — is that the DFL will benefit financially from the growth of the unions because the expanded unions will have more money to spend on political activities.

Thompson insists organizing the day-care operations “doesn’t fit the union model.”

“These aren’t factory workers, working under an employer,” Thompson said. “These are self-employed people who operate their own businesses.”

But union leaders say that the organizing effort is very much in keeping with traditional union models. An independent day-care operator isn’t so much different from the owner of a small plumbing shop who belongs to a plumbers’ union.

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Back up a moment to see who would be covered if the majority of operators would vote to join a union. Again, these are the small, household day-care operations in every community in the state who accept children who receive a state subsidy to cover the cost of day care.

 It’s the owner/operators of the facilities, not employees of those facilities, who would be in the union — the theory being that the owner/operator currently has an employee/manager relationship with the state.

It is the state that determines regulations (working conditions) and determines the amount of subsidy children receive (indirectly, that’s wages). 

Workers’ conflicting views

Two views of the bill:

Jennifer Parrish owns and operates Little Learners Day Care in her Rochester home. She currently cares for six children, ranging in age from 6 weeks to 5 years old. She currently has no children receiving a subsidy, although she’s had subsidized clients in the past and expects to have subsidized clients in the future, unless she’s required to join a union.

“I’m not anti-union,” Parrish said, “but someone in a factory is in an entirely different situation than the situation I’m in. If this [unionization] happens, I would be exclusively represented by AFSCME. I want to represent myself.”

From her perspective, the union would end up costing her business money.  She said she currently pays $45 a year to belong to a local association of day-care operators and $35 to a state association.

Those associations provide her some training, she said. Additionally, she said, the state association employs a lobbyist at the state Capitol. The lobbyist works to improve subsidy rates paid by the state and also works in areas of state regulations surrounding day-care operations.

In states that have day-care unions, Parrish said union dues run anywhere from $400 to $700 a year.

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Lynn Barton runs a day-care operation in her Alexandria home. She currently cares for 12 children ranging in age from 14 months to 9 years old. She currently has one child in her care whose payments are covered by state subsidy.

“I can’t afford to accept more than one child,” Barton said. “I charge more than the state reimburses.”

Barton supports the effort for small operators to have union representation.

“I think it would offer a level of professionalism to our careers,” she said. “Too often we aren’t seen as professional. There are still some people who call us ‘babysitters.’ ”

Barton is convinced that AFSCME would be effective in giving day-care operators a stronger voice at the Capitol regarding not only subsidies, but in streamlining regulations as well. 

The regulations — some state, some county — are so cumbersome, Barton said, “that it’s technically illegal for me to even go to the bathroom.”