Union discussion

Becky Swanson, front, talks with local child-care providers about a possible union on Thursday night at the Owatonna Public Library. (Derek Sullivan/People's Press)

OWATONNA — Becky Swanson has traveled all across Minnesota to rally people together, not to form a union, but to keep one from coming into existence.

On Thursday night, the Steele County Republican Party hosted Swanson from Childcare Freedom. A dozen local child-care providers came to the Owatonna library to hear from Swanson, who said her group is trying to protect independent Minnesota childcare providers.

In May, the Minnesota Legislature narrowly passed and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law a bill that grants child care providers the chance at creating a union that could negotiate contract terms with the state of Minnesota. The state offers payment to many providers through a subsidy program that allows lower-income families to access daycare services.

Swanson opposes the bill, which could unionize roughly 12,700 child care providers, both licensed and unlicensed in-home providers who receive state subsidies from the Child Care Assistance Program, or as it’s more commonly called CCAP.

After the bill passed, Swanson went to court to block a vote.

The lawsuit, which was brought by Swanson and 10 others, argued the statute wrongly excludes from a union vote those child care providers who don’t receive state subsidies.

The lawsuit, as well as another one looking to block the vote, was dismissed in late July by U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis.

Swanson said Thursday night that her lawsuit was dismissed because “the case isn’t ripe enough yet.”

In his ruling, Davis wrote: “At this time, the state statute does not require Plaintiffs to associate with a union, be represented by a union, engage in collective bargaining, or pay money to any union. Plaintiffs may never be required to do any of these things.” He added that “Plaintiffs request that the Court peer into a crystal ball, predict the future, and then opine on the constitutionality of a speculative scenario.”

Gov. Mark Dayton, who was listed as a defendant in Swanson’s case, said in a news release that he is pleased with the ruling.

“I believe that working men and women should have the right to vote on forming a union, and that the Court’s decisions will permit such an election to be held,” Dayton said.

Despite the defeat, Swanson said Thursday she is not giving up.

Tiffany Conner, whose sister and late mother were also child-care providers, was at the meeting. Conner, who watches 12 children, three of whom receive CCAP funding, said she hopes Swanson succeeds in blocking the vote on a union.

“I’m hoping that it doesn’t get to a point where we have to vote,” Conner said. “We don’t really know which way it’s going to go yet. I know what I’m hoping for, but I have no clue which way it’s going to go. I’m hoping that either a lawsuit goes through and there is no vote, or the union does not get enough signatures for a vote.”

Before a vote can take place the union, which already exists but only accepts volunteer members, must collect 500 cards from child care providers who say they want the union. Then, the union must demonstrate that it has support from at least 30 percent of child care workers eligible to vote.

The union can turn in cards and provide data proving 30 percent support at any time, but Lisa Thompson, the union’s president, said Friday that there is no timeline to get a vote done. The union has until 2017 to hold a vote.

State Rep. Patti Fritz, DFL-Faribault, voted for the bill last May, as did state Sen. Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna. State Rep. John Petersburg, R-Owatonna, voted against the bill and was at Thursday’s event.

Petersburg said he opposes the bill because it makes the state of Minnesota the boss of independent small business owners. Fritz said she supports the bill because it gives people the right to vote.

“What the bill does is give people the right to vote. I believe people should have the right to vote,” Fritz said.

Fritz said she has heard from child care providers — who have called, e-mailed and visited her office — and they want representation.

“They want health-care benefits and they want to be able to increase rates. They feel they are underrepresented,” she said.

Fritz added that she has no idea what will happen, or even if a vote will take place. Opponents of child-care unionization have been filing lawsuits to stop the vote.

“This is America. You can’t block the vote,” Fritz said.

If a vote ever does take place, Conner will vote no. Conner said she doesn’t believe the union dues, which Swanson said Thursday will range between $300 and $600 per year, will help her business.

“The big thing is that we are going to have to pay for things that we are not going to get,” Conner said Friday. “Having to pay $300 a year, on top of other things we have to pay for licensing, supplies, training and that stuff that we aren’t going to get any benefits back. We aren’t going to get health care. We aren’t going to get anything we already couldn’t get ourselves. I don’t see it as them giving us anything we can’t already get.”

Conner, who pays $200 every two years to remain licensed, told the crowd Thursday night that if she wanted a higher rate, she doesn’t need a union to give her the OK to offer it.

“If we wanted more pay, we could raise our prices. We might not get any more customers, but can raise our prices ourselves,” Conner said.

And the promise of better health-care?

“It’s (MinnesotaCare), and we can get that right now. Anybody can apply for,” Conner said. “If you don’t qualify now, you’re not going to qualify when there’s a union.”

Swanson said Thursday that a large majority of child-care providers in Minnesota think like Conner does. She and Petersburg both shared data from recent surveys that showed 75 percent to 90 percent of child-care providers don’t want a union.

Thompson said her organization, Child Care Providers Together, has seen different results.

“What we are seeing in face-to-face, one-on-one conversations with people telling them what the union is about is that they are excited, and they want to be a part of it,” Thompson said.

She added that she’s fully aware of the surveys Swanson and Petersburg talked about on Thursday night.

“Then they are talking about 75 percent. It’s a very slanted survey. Out of 12,000 licensed child care providers, 1,500 participated. That is the sample that they are talking about when they say 75 percent,” Thompson said.

Thompson said a survey done in December 2010 with child-care providers in the northern part of the state had a majority of support.

“We had incredible support and interests in moving forward with the union,” she said. “And I believe we are going to find the same in the new areas of the state that we are working in. The unique thing about a union for family child care is that it’s a new wave of the labor movement. 100 years people had no idea what a union was going to be or what it could do for everybody. Thompson said discuss their needs, their situations, formed union and changed law.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach reporter Derek Sullivan at 444-2372, or follow him on Twitter @OPPSullivan

Reach reporter Derek Sullivan at 444-2372, or follow him on Twitter @OPPSullivan

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