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Child care providers challenge new state law in federal court

Childcare provider Hollee Saville of St. Michael says on Wednesday that people like her are business owners and should not belong to unions. Looking on is attorney Doug Seaton, who filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of providers to overturn a new Minnesota law allowing unions. Don Davis | Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Minnesota child care providers who want nothing to do with a union are taking a new law to federal court.

The law Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton signed Friday allows home-based child care providers who receive state subsidies to care for children to ask for a vote that could lead to joining a union.

"We are not public employees," St. Michael child care provider Hollee Saville said Wednesday as she and 10 other providers filed the federal case.

Attorney Doug Seaton said the case is based on claims that federal law prohibits the state from allowing business owners to join unions. He also said that federal law requires that all similar businesses are treated the same, but the new state law only allows child care providers that take state subsidies to vote to join a union.

"Federal labor law takes priority," the attorney said.

Seaton said he hopes a federal judge will at least temporarily end the unionization process in the next couple of weeks.

Wednesday’s court case does not deal with personal care attendants, who also would be allowed to join a union under the new law, but Seaton said he expects a similar case to be filed for opponents of that part of the law.

Dayton had issued an executive order to allow the child care provider unionization. However, a state judge ruled that he did not have constitutional authority; only the Legislature could take such action, the judge said.

Jennifer Munt of the AFSCME Council 5 union, which would be the child care workers’ union, said the lawsuit is weak.

"There is nothing more constitutional than the democratic right to vote," she said.

The first step toward unionization, if the law is upheld, will be for AFSCME to collect 500 signatures from child care providers asking that the state provide a list of home child care providers that receive a state subsidy. Once those are collected, 30 percent of providers on that state list (now 12,700 providers) must ask for an election.

If there is an election, more than half of those voting would need to support allowing providers to join a union.

Union dues and fair share payments made by nonunion members would be decided only after providers ratify their first contract with the state, Munt said.

AFSCME has four years to hold the election.

Unionization was one of the most hotly debated topics at the recently completed legislative session. Democrats basically supported it, while Republicans opposed it.

Becky Swanson of Lakeville, a child care provider who stayed in the Capitol for hours demonstrating against the bill, said Wednesday that "this is really overreach" of legislative power.

Swanson said she fears that if unionization is allowed, "we will have cookie-cutter programs," with little difference from provider to provider.

Munt disputed that claim, saying that joining unions would allow providers to negotiate for more state money and better rules.

However, regardless of what the union negotiates, it is up to legislators to approve the spending.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.