Carlton County childcare providers fight efforts to unionizeLeaders say they aren’t anti-union, but don’t see many benefits in a union for independent business owners
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Heather Falk has a union sticker on her car, dates a union member and praises her sister’s union. Yet, the Cloquet woman has spent much of her free time over the past six years fighting efforts in Minnesota to create a union for licensed home childcare providers.
Falk isn’t anti-union; she simply doesn’t see how unionizing Minnesota’s licensed home childcare providers – people like her who offer childcare services out of their homes – will benefit these independent business owners.
Falk isn’t alone. She and fellow childcare provider Judy Sanda spent an evening in July at Gordy’s Warming House, collecting signatures from other Carlton County providers who oppose the unionization. According to Falk, 100 percent of Carlton County child care providers don’t want a union.
It may not matter what Carlton County’s in-home childcare providers want, however. If Gov. Mark Dayton signs an executive order recognizing such a union, because of the Minnesota Fair Share law, licensed home childcare providers would have to pay, whether they chose to join the union or not. And, according to union supporters, a majority of the state’s licensed childcare providers have signed cards stating they want a union.
“If you look at it from a business sense, what can they do for us?” said Falk, who is the vice president of Carlton County’s chapter of the Minnesota Licensed Family Child Care Association (MLFCCA). “It might give us a stronger voice at the Capitol, that’s about the only thing I can figure out. There is no healthcare program. The state isn’t going to pick us up as employees – the state is broke; they can’t add us to their pensions and healthcare. And [according to state statute], you need an employer/employee tie to get a group policy discount on insurance and we are employed by parents, not the state or the county.”
There are, of course, two sides to the story.
Lisa Thompson of St. Paul has also been working on the unionization issue for six years – from the viewpoint of a childcare provider who wants a union.
“We are a unique kind of field,” said Thompson, who is listed as a CCPT/AFSCME Council 5 contact on the Child Care Providers Together (CCPT) website. “We are completely regulated by the state but enforcement is by the county and we’re no one’s employee. We’re very different from most other workers, so it’s not appropriate for us to have a union like other employees have.”
Thompson said the union would be very grassroots driven, and its members would decide priorities such as group healthcare once the union was approved.
“I think one of the biggest things would be developing a process to have a voice in the regulation we are mandated to follow,” Thompson said, noting that providers often don’t hear about proposed regulatory changes until they are law. “Our union would also benefit from the [AFSCME] council’s lobbyists, influence and knowledge.”
The move to unionize Minnesota’s licensed home childcare providers isn’t something new.
Carlton County licensed home childcare providers first heard about efforts to unionize their businesses in 2005, when two different unions– American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) – conducted separate door knocking campaigns in the county. In the end, the two unions agreed to split the state between north and south, with AFSCME’s “Child Care Providers Together” aiming to represent the northern half of the state (including Hennepin County).
Initially, Falk said the idea seemed like a good one.
“They talked about pensions, health care, workman’s compensation … it sounded appealing,” Falk said.
But when she and others went to an AFSCME Council 5 meeting and started asking for answers to specific questions that the union couldn’t provide, they were asked to leave, Falk alleged, because they “weren’t being productive.”
“I heard about that meeting,” Thompson said. “That was unfortunate. Going forward, we have tried to make sure people that talked to childcare providers knew more about what they do and how they work.”
There were also issues with the cards signed by childcare providers, Falk said. Many claimed they thought all they were doing was asking for more information, not asking for a union to represent them.
Katy Chase, MLFCCA statewide director and a neutral party in the union discussions, said in a separate interview that her organization had “multiple reports” of providers not understanding what they were signing or being told that they were signing cards only to receive more information.
Before the governor signs any executive order, Falk and Sanda, among others, would prefer that the state’s 11,000 licensed home childcare providers vote yes or no to forming a union in a secret ballot, monitored by a third party. Chase said MLFCCA supports the ballot idea as well.
When asked about holding a vote, Eric Lehto, organizing director for AFSCME Council 5, noted only that AFSCME is a “member-run union” and that “the child care providers will decide how to form their union.”
In response to the same question, Thompson explained that a secret ballot and a card check are both ways of finding out whether or not the majority of child care providers want a union.
“There are nearly 3,000 Minnesota child care providers who are a part of this effort with Child Care Providers Together (CCPT),” she said in a follow up email. “This majority was verified/certified for us in December 2010 and despite the minor fluctuations in our number of card signers at any given time, we have maintained that ‘majority’ level of supportive card signers ever since.”
Although unionization efforts had toned down in Carlton County after the initial flurry of activity, another card check campaign started in 2010.
The timing of that campaign makes Falk uneasy, since it came after Dayton was elected governor with union support.
Two weeks ago, she and several other representatives from different regions of the state met with Dayton’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative Affairs Michelle Kelm-Helgen, his aide and three researchers to explain their side of the story and answer questions.
Falk said the meeting was a pleasant surprise.
“Michelle knew a lot more than we expected,” she said, explaining that previous calls had been met with a “we don’t know what you’re talking about” excuse. “We were able to clarify a lot.”
They weren’t, however, able to get an idea of the governor’s intentions regarding the union’s request for an executive order.
Neither was the Pine Journal.
Press secretary Katharine Tinucci said the governor hasn’t made any decisions, and that his office is in the process of collecting information and researching the proposal. She was unaware of any timeline for his decision.
Tinucci did say that such an executive order would be fairly unique, adding that Dayton’s office has put out 26 executive orders this year, ranging from lifting restrictions on the number of hours truck drivers can drive following a particular storm to creating a task force on election integrity. A number of the orders dealt with declaring emergencies or lifting restrictions (relating to those emergencies) in portions or all of the state.
“We asked that he doesn’t sign,” Falk said. “But it sounds like he will do it, because [Michelle Kelm-Helgen] kept talking about how it is within his rights and 14 other states have done it.”
The stories of those other states are all different. Minnesota child care providers will also write their own story, if the union comes to pass, union supporters say.
“At this point, the question is ‘Do the providers want to negotiate with the state over areas that affect their business?’ Lehto wrote in response to email questions. “The time to talk about concrete benefits is after a union has been recognized and a contract has been negotiated. In other states, like New York, providers have secured affordable health insurance. In Oregon, providers won a bill of rights through their first contract.”
Thompson wrote out a list of some 20 items providers “may” secure through a union, including the following:
• Retirement pension program
• Better access to required training
• Rates of state subsidy compensation in line with market averages
• Decisions by majority vote
• System improvements for fairness and consistency across the state
Falk isn’t buying it.
“According to them, the membership is going to set up what we want and how much it will cost after the union is formed,” Falk said. “It’s like going to a car lot and being told that you’re going to buy a certain car, but you’re not going to know what type of car, its features, the cost or the interest rate until after you sign on the dotted line.
“It’s very frustrating, because no one would run a business based on unknowns.”