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Union prepares for child care vote

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's largest public employee union is moving ahead with plans to organize child care providers who receive state subsidies after a federal judge tossed out a pair of lawsuits seeking to stop the work.

But officials of AFSCME Council 5 have no prediction about when it could hold an election to authorize child care workers joining the union.

"Right now we are busy visiting with 12,700 child care providers," AFSCME spokeswoman Jennifer Munt said Monday. "That will take some time."

Munt and other union officials were happy that federal Judge Michael Davis on Sunday dismissed two lawsuits by unionization opponents.

"Their claim is not ripe," Davis wrote, leaving the door open to lawsuits after child care workers join the union, if an election allows unionization.

Union opponents could appeal the Davis ruling and said they were ready to continue the legal battle later.

"While the judge's ruling was disheartening, it was far from upholding the Democrats' childcare unionization law," Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said. "In two of the major claims brought by child care providers, the judge stated it was simply too early and too speculative to rule on the merits of the case at this point in the process."

Both sides agreed with one Franson comment: "It's clear that this is going to be a long fight in court."

Allowing the providers to join unions was pushed by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and members of his party who control both chambers of the Legislature. They say allowing people who own home-based child care centers and receive state subsidies would get a greater say when negotiating rates and rules with state officials.

Opponents argue that nothing the union would negotiate could be final since the Legislature would make the final decisions. They also say that child care providers are business owners who should not be part of unions, which are for employees.

AFSCME is in the process of meeting the first requirement of a law passed as this year's legislative session wound down: collect 500 signatures from potential members who may be interested in joining a union. Then, the union would be required to provide the state with cards signed by 30 percent of the nearly 13,000 child care providers who the state subsidizes for taking on children from low-income families.

If the state approves the signatures, an election would be held about whether to establish the union. No childcare provider would be required to join.

Munt said the law gives her union three years to get through all the red tape, but she would not estimate when an election could be scheduled.

"We will not file those cards until we are certain we can win an election," Munt said.

If an election allows a union, Munt said that AFSCME would negotiate a contract with the state, which would be put up to a vote by childcare providers who joined the union.

Once a contract is approved, Munt said, union dues would be established.

Originally, AFSCME was going to concentrate on the state's largest counties, as well as those in northern Minnesota. The Service Employees International Union, which wanted to represent child care providers in the rest of the state, opted to concentrate on organizing personal care attendants statewide, leaving AFSCME all state-subsidized child care providers.

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.