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Opponents of day-care unionization efforts triumphant after Supreme Court decision

The ruling delivers a major blow to efforts to organize home-health and day-care workers in Minnesota, though the decision may not go as far as opponents hoped. 

Jennifer Parrish, lead plaintiff in the case against the state, speaking during Monday's news conference with Republican legislators and political candidates.
MinnPost photo by Briana Biersch

Opponents of an effort to unionize Minnesota’s home-based day-care and health workers are elated with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that thousands of home health-care workers cannot be required to pay fees that help cover their union’s costs of collective bargaining.

The court’s 5-4 ruling in the Illinois case of Harris v. Quinn Monday is the latest development in the drawn-out effort from two unions in Minnesota — AFSCME Council 5 and SEIU Healthcare Minnesota — to organize thousands of day-care providers and personal care attendants who receive state subsidies.

The DFL-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton paved the way for providers to unionize with a 2013 law change, but the move was immediately challenged in court by opponents. In September, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals put a hold on the union election in Minnesota until there was a resolution in the Illinois case before the Supreme Court. A final ruling from the Circuit Court could now come in a matter of weeks.

Most political and legal experts agree that opponents of the law have reason to celebrate. The high court ruling hurts union efforts to set contracts and remain financially viable, but it may not go as far as opponents in Minnesota would like. Union leaders had feared the court would strike down laws in more than two dozen states that require public employees to pay union fees even if they don’t agree with the union’s political advocacy work. That didn’t happen.  

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“This is particularly focused on home care workers, and the justices didn’t take the opportunity to expand it broader,” said John Budd, a professor of work and organization at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “It’s really only around one issue, which is the ability to impose fair share agreements. It doesn’t really effect their ability to unionize or not.”

Opponents ‘cautiously optimistic’

At a news conference Monday where she was flanked by Republican legislators and political candidates, a teary-eyed Jennifer Parrish — a Rochester home care provider who is the lead plaintiff in the case against the state — called the Minnesota and Illinois cases nearly identical and proclaimed the issue of collecting fees all but dead after the ruling. She also asked Dayton to drop legal challenges and personally pay plaintiffs’ legal costs.

The Supreme Court found that home health care workers in Illinois couldn’t be forced to pay fees because they aren’t full-fledged employees of the state. Rather, they are hired by individual patients and work in private homes, even if they are paid in part by state Medicaid funding.

Parrish was also “cautiously optimistic” that the ruling was “merely a first step” in her challenge, which goes beyond the arguments in Illinois. Parrish is questioning the union’s ability to gain exclusive representation for non-state employees. “The next logical step is that our case will knock that out as well,” she said.

But University of Minnesota labor economics professor Aaron Sojourner said it’s unlikely the courts will broaden the Minnesota case.

“It’s giving individual people working under this framework the ability to say I’d rather opt out,” he said. “The big drama of the case was whether it was going extend beyond these decentralized workers who don’t have the state as the employer of record but do have the state paying for their services. That didn’t happen.”

Unions said the ruling wouldn’t curtail their organizing efforts. They said their representation would mean bargaining for quality reimbursement rates and working conditions for day-care and home health workers.

“No court case can stand in the way of millions of women who help us raise our children and care for our aging parents,” said Eliot Seide, director of AFSCME Council 5. “Child-care providers and home care workers will continue to have a strong voice for good jobs and quality care for their consumers. This decision doesn’t stop them from organizing and collectively bargaining with states.”

Potent election issue?

All four Republicans running for governor are using the ruling as an opportunity to attack Dayton.  

Some operatives think the attention on the case could hurt the governor’s support with independent female voters in swing districts, and Republicans were quick to cast the governor as going after small businesses owned by mostly women to pay back unions for their political support.

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Orono businessman and governor candidate Scott Honour said he would continue to push the theme that Dayton puts unions before average Minnesotans. GOP-endorsed governor candidate Jeff Johnson said it was “beyond the pale” for Dayton to use the “livelihoods of hundreds of small businesswomen throughout the state as collateral to pay back his union campaign contributors.”

MN Jobs Coalition, a third-party group training its fire on Dayton this campaign season, noted that the deal passed by a one-vote margin and signed into law “despite bi-partisan opposition.” 

But Dayton defended the law, which he has pushed for since 2011, when he issued an executive order to allow the unions to hold an election. A state court tossed that order.

“For decades the right to organize has been an accepted mainstream principle in American society,” Dayton said in a statement Monday. “If people can’t vote for themselves to decide if they want to join a union or not, that’s just not democracy.”