Child Care Providers in Minnesota Battle Over Unionization

child care minnesota unionization battleWhile many governors across the country have worked to curb union power over the past year, Minnesota's Gov. Mark Dayton, who is sympathetic to unions, called on state child care providers to decide whether they wanted to join a union themselves. The backlash has been intense, and on Thursday a group of child care providers announced that they would file a lawsuit to oppose the effort on constitutional grounds, reports the Star Tribune.

Families in Minnesota, who are income eligible ($34,000 or less a year for a family of three), can receive subsidies for childcare. Most pay some money to their daycare provider, but the rest of his or her salary is paid for by the state.

That salary, which varies by county, quality of care, and age of child, fell below the federally recommended amount last year, according to the National Women's Law Center, and was reduced even further last October. Today, an accredited childcare provider in Minnesota, who is caring for an infant, can be maximumly reimbursed between $2.12 and $3.01 an hour. Providers without accreditation get 15 percent less.

Families are squeezed; in March last year, there were 4,500 families on the waiting list for subsidies. Childcare providers are squeezed; with lower reimbursement rates, fewer low-income families can afford their care. The state budget is squeezed; lawmakers closed a $5 billion deficit last summer after the longest state shutdown in over a decade.

Many childcare workers liked the idea of a union. It would be their champion at the table, ideally pushing for higher reimbursement rates and negotiating on other issues childcare workers face, like quality rating systems and training opportunities. Child care workers in 15 states have formed unions since 2005, and several, like Illinois, Oregon, and Iowa, have successfully won higher subsidies, as well as other perks, like lower co-payments for parents and health insurance.

Dayton, a Democrat, decided that the "American way" would be to hold an election, in which all the licensed daycare providers who receive state subsidies could vote. According to his executive order, all the votes would have been tallied by the end of December.

But many weren't excited by the idea of a union. Only the childcare workers who served subsidized families were eligible to vote, which is around 4,300 of the state's 11,000 child care workers. And while no one would be required to join and pay dues, the union would still represent all the subsidized child care workers to state agencies, and may rally around issues that affect all of the state's child care providers. For this reason, the Minnesota Licensed Family Child Care Association, which already advocates on behalf of Minnesota's child care providers, sent the governor a letter asking him to extend voting rights to all 11,000 licensed workers.

"Why should a family provider who started their own private business be told that you're going to be unionized?" asks Chad Dunkley, the CEO of childcare chain New Horizon Academy. The union wouldn't be playing a traditional role, he says, advocating for higher salaries and benefits. Rather, he says, the union wants to boost its membership, and increase subsidies, so that it could take, he speculates, a slice of the pie.

"It's just another Merry Christmas gift from our governor," complained a Republican state senator, Mike Parry, of Dayton's action, "which will mean more government intrusion into the lives of our independent businesses." Other Republican senators argued that it isn't even within the governor's legal rights to pass an executive order of this kind.

One judge thought the matter was worth looking into more closely. Judge Dale Lindman issued a temporary restraining order to delay the vote, and the issue will be revisited in a hearing scheduled for Feb. 22.

But before that day comes, opponents leveled a separate charge against the vote. A group of child care providers said such an election would violate their constitutional rights to free expression and association and declared -- through the free market advocacy group, Freedom Foundation of Minnesota -- their intention to sue in federal court. The nonprofit National Right to Work Foundation has offered free legal assistance, reports the Star Tribune.

Unions and the care of our nation's children are two of the most combustible issues in politics today, and in Minnesota they have collided at full force. Some child care providers want a louder voice; others believe the attempt to find it through a union has caused their voices to be unconstitutionally ignored. It seems that forming a union is a process almost as contentious as trying to trim one down.

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