Drive to unionize in-home child care

MARTIGA LOHN, Associated Press

Updated 01:29 p.m., Sunday, September 25, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A union drive among home-based child care providers has emerged as a sticky political issue in Minnesota, raising divisions among those who make a living caring for 130,000 children and pitting union-friendly Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton against legislative Republicans seeking to curb organized labor.

At stake is the status of 11,000 self-employed providers who run child care businesses in their homes.

Two major unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, have spent six years trying to organize the licensed providers and say they have majority support to form a union.

Eliot Seide, who heads AFSCME Council 5, said a union would give the profession a stronger say when it comes to state and local regulation, subsidies given to poor families to help pay for child care and issues including training, health care and grievances with licensing authorities. The union wouldn’t be involved in setting rates for the parents who pay for their children’s care.

State and union officials have yet to lay out a process that would create such a union. Dayton has resisted union pressure to use executive powers to recognize one by decree, saying he won’t act before the providers take an authorization vote. The Bureau of Mediation Services, the state agency that handles labor issues, hasn’t commented on how a union vote could proceed or whether the bureau would be involved.

The prospect of adding Minnesota to 15 states that already recognize home-based child care provider unions has gotten traction with some providers, while raising the hackles of others.

“I have everything to gain, really, and nothing to lose,” said Chrissy Schumann, a day care provider in Grand Meadows who hopes unionizing would lead to better options for purchasing health insurance. “Does it bother me to pay dues? Not really, because I would benefit a lot.”

Opponents including Hollee Saville, a child care provider in St. Michael, fear being forced to join a union and pay dues that would raise costs for businesses already running close to the margins. It’s unclear whether all home-based providers would be required to join a child care union.

“If I’m charged union dues, I’m going to have to pass those costs on to parents,” said Saville, who cares for a handful of children in her St. Michael home west of Minneapolis. “The only people who will gain anything from this are the unions. I would lose my autonomy as an independent, privately owned business.”

Parents have largely been silent in the debate.

Some seek out home-based child care because it costs less than child care centers. In some rural parts of the state, it’s the only day care available. About 3,000 of the licensed home day cares in Minnesota currently receive state subsidies that help poor families cover the cost of care, according to the Department of Human Services.

The Minnesota Licensed Family Child Care Association, the professional group for home-based child care providers, is neutral on the union drive. Executive director Katy Chase said forming a union should require the approval of a majority of home-based child care providers — not just a majority of those voting in a union election.

Seide said that standard would throw another obstacle in the path of a union.

Union organizers said it’s too soon to say how much child care providers would pay in dues if they formed a union — because it would be up to the union members to set the dues. Seide said AFSCME affiliates’ dues in Minnesota generally run in the $30-a-month range.

“We want to lift this profession as a career. Frankly, it’s insulting to call providers babysitters. They are not babysitters. They are professional providers who get licensed, who have certain skills to take care of children — not just take care of them but prepare them for the upcoming life they’re going to lead,” Seide said.

Bureau of Mediation Services Commissioner Josh Tilsen said in an email that the bureau is studying the issue and declined to comment beyond that.

The issue has flared into a touchy political subject.

Republicans who control the Legislature have seized on the union push as an overreach by Dayton and his labor supporters. At a Capitol hearing on Thursday, they questioned Dayton’s legal authority to recognize a day care union.

“I’m hoping that the governor will do the right thing and just back away from this,” said Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, who presided over the hearing.

Dayton accused Republicans of “whipping themselves into a political frenzy for their own purposes.”

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