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Local childcare providers vow to continue fight against union

Local licensed childcare provider and activist Heather Falk is closing the door on her in-home business and going to work for Lil' Thunder, a childcare center at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. She will still be using her early childhoo...

Don't want union
They may be smiling, but local licensed in-home childcare providers (from left) Trish Berger, Addie Clyde and Judy Sanda are not happy with the unionization legislature passed by the Minnesota Legislature this past week. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com

Local licensed childcare provider and activist Heather Falk is closing the door on her in-home business and going to work for Lil' Thunder, a childcare center at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. She will still be using her early childhood education bachelor's degree to help kids, but she won't have to deal with running her own business and -- more importantly to Falk -- she won't have to deal with a union she doesn't want.

Minnesota senators took nearly 17 hours last week to approve a bill on a vote of 35-32, allowing in-home childcare providers -- licensed and unlicensed -- and personal care attendants to unionize. In the House Monday night, the vote was even closer at 68-66, passing by only two votes. Gov. Mark Dayton has said he will sign the bill.

The bill would allow for an election among providers if unions meet certain thresholds of support. If in-home childcare providers and personal care attendants (PCAs) decided to form a union, the union would have exclusive rights to negotiate on their behalf with the state. The state's two largest unions, SEIU and AFSCME, will have four years to convince providers that union membership will be worth their dues.

The majority of Carlton County's nearly 70 licensed childcare providers are not happy about the legislative action.

"We're sad," said Judy Sanda, a longtime provider in Cloquet.

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"No, we're mad," said Addie Clyde, who's been in the business more than 20 years.

"I feel more disappointed," said Esko's Trish Berger. "We've been lumped in with unlicensed providers -- such as grandparents who get paid by the state to care for their grandchildren -- when we have to pass CPR and First Aid courses, have our homes inspected and complete so many hours of training per year."

Others are pleased with the vote.

"Today, the DFL members of the Minnesota Senate gave childcare providers the right to vote for a union," Alexandria child care provider Lynn Barten said after the Senate vote last week. "Everyone wins when we come together and work together to improve our lives and profession."

Perhaps Falk's reaction was the most surprising.

"I'm relieved," she said, revealing that a group of 12 providers (including Clyde) from around the state are planning to file a federal lawsuit with representation from the National Right to Work Foundation attorney Bill Messenger. "Now we can fight it in court on a federal level and hopefully kill it forever."

AFSCME and SEIU have both sought to unionize childcare workers for nearly a decade in Minnesota. Last year, with the GOP in control of the Legislature, Gov. Dayton sought to give them that opportunity by issuing an executive order authorizing a union election among certain providers.

That order was shot down by a judge, who said Dayton had exceeded his authority, noting that the action really needed to come through the legislature. That it did, in dramatic fashion over the past 10 days.

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District 11 State Senator Tony Lourey voted in favor of the unionization bill.

"I believe it is important for child care providers and their industry to have a voice at the Capitol," Lourey said in response to the Pine Journal. "I believe it is each person's decision whether that voice is a union or not. I am not even suggesting that they should choose a union. I'm simply voting to make sure that they have the ability to form a union if they so choose. The decision should and will be theirs. The vote will be theirs."

Once the bill is signed by Dayton, according to the union website, a union will only be formed if enough cards are collected to trigger an election and if a majority of voters vote "yes" in the election.

Majority wins, regardless of the number of votes returned.

Although the two unions previously targeted both childcare providers, under the current arrangement AFSCME would oversee the childcare providers while SEIU would represent the PCAs.

Providers who support the unionization effort say a union will give providers more respect, a collective bargaining voice in licensing and subsidy debates and could offer other benefits such as group healthcare. The AFSCME Childcare Providers Together website also touts better training for providers, meaning better care for children. Because the union representing all in-home providers -- not childcare center workers -- doesn't actually exist yet, no one can say with any certainty what the union would offer its members or even how much dues would be. Initial estimates run about $25 a month.

Falk has been fighting against the unionization effort for eight years, because she doesn't think it will benefit anyone but the union. She points out that in-home, licensed childcare providers are small business owners who set their own rates and who are free to choose their own clients. And she says providers are already meeting high training standards.

Sanda -- who's been fighting side-by-side with Falk since the beginning -- argues that local licensed providers already have excellent representation through more than one organization, starting with their own Carlton County Licensed Childcare Providers group, which petitioned the state in the late 1990s to change how it paid for the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), a program that subsidizes childcare costs for lower-income families.

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"Parents used to receive the CCAP checks, but we said, 'No, the money should come to us,'" Sanda said. "And we got it changed for all the licensed childcare providers in the state. We represent ourselves just fine."

CCAP payments are at the heart of the union issue. Only childcare providers who receive the state assistance will be allowed to vote because union dues will be deducted from the state CCAP payments. If the union is approved, those who don't join -- but who have CCAP clients -- will still have to make "fair share" payments, which are capped at 85 percent of dues in Minnesota.

"When I had a CCAP child, I think I made about $160 a month," Berger said. "Take $25 out of that and it's not really worth it."

"Nearly 99 percent of providers in this area don't want [a union]," Falk said. "I've heard from 30 providers already that say they will drop CCAP. How is that good for our children? Where will those families go?"

Fewer than half of the nearly 11,000 licensed childcare providers in the state would get to vote for or against a union, because only providers who have or recently had CCAP clients get a voice.

"It's my goal to make sure that lots of people vote," Falk said, noting that she plans to continue her involvement because she doesn't want to abandon her friends and fellow childcare providers. "Because it's not just a vote, it's a stacked vote. They cut out half the people affected and allowed babysitters a vote."

In addition to their very active county group, the trio said most licensed providers also belong to the Minnesota Licensed Family Child Care Association (MLFCCA), a statewide organization that has provided training, resources, advocacy and other services to its members.

"What can the union do for us?" Clyde said. "They can't get us healthcare. They can't get us higher payment for CCAP, because that's up to the legislature [to allocate].

"We own the company -- who will we be negotiating with?" she said, holding a mock conversation with herself demanding a raise.

District 11A Minnesota State Representative Mike Sundin did not respond before deadline to questions emailed Monday about his vote; he also voted in favor of allowing the different care providers to unionize.

"If this goes through, God help the Avon lady," Clyde said.

"Because she'll be unionized," Berger said, finishing the thought.

Forum Communications reporters Don Davis and Danielle Killey contributed to this story.

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