No bill has faced a more tortuous path this legislative session than a proposal to allow child care workers and personal care assistants to unionize.
The bill has cleared 10 committees in the House and Senate. But in three instances, the legislation advanced without recommendation — a fate that sometimes befalls bills with a core of powerful supporters but insufficient support to pass with committee backing.
On Monday, the bill encountered its latest snag in what was supposed to be its final committee hearing. The Senate Finance Committee deadlocked on an 11-11 vote, thus failing to advance the bill to the Senate floor. Two DFL senators — Barb Goodwin of Columbia Heights and Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka — joined all Republicans to derail the bill.
“Certainly we expected it to pass, so it was a little bit of a surprise,” said Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, the chief author of the bill, after the vote. “It was a disappointment.”
Republicans were less charitable in their assessment of what transpired. “Usually you don’t have a major bill come up for a vote and have it go down if you’re in control,” said Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, one of the most vocal critics of the proposal. “The only thing worse than not passing it is having it fail.”
Supporters of the bill insist that it’s not dead yet. On Wednesday morning, the Finance Committee, at Pappas’ behest, brought the legislation up again, but didn’t vote on the measure. It’s expected to be voted on when the committee reconvenes later on Wednesday.
“These are difficult decisions to make, and members are often torn about it,” Pappas said. “I just think that the entire Senate should take a vote on this and that we deserve to have a full vote.”
20,000 people could be affected
The proposal would allow child care providers who receive state subsidies and personal care assistants hired directly by the people they take care of to unionize. More than 20,000 workers could ultimately be eligible to join labor unions if the legislation is enacted. The proposal is the top legislative priority for AFSCME Council 5 and SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, which are among the most politically active unions in the state and staunch DFL allies. AFSCME is seeking to organize child care workers, while SEIU is looking to organize personal care assistants. Union officials argue that collective bargaining will enable workers to receive better wages and benefits and additional training opportunities.
But the proposals have been pilloried by Republicans as well as some providers. The child care proposal was initially brought forward by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who signed an executive order in 2011 that directed the state to conduct an election to determine whether workers wished to have union representation. But 11 day care providers filed a lawsuit alleging that Dayton had overstepped his executive authority in ordering the election. In April of last year, a Ramsey County District Court judge ruled in their favor and invalidated the planned union vote. The state was also ordered to cover the plaintiff’s legal fees.
Moving the proposal legislatively hasn’t done anything to quell the criticism. Detractors of the proposal argue that child care providers are small business owners who shouldn’t be subject to the directives of the state in determining how they conduct their operations.
Earlier this month, attorney Doug Seaton, who represented the child care providers in the previous lawsuit, sent a letter to legislative leaders warning of additional litigation over the constitutionality of the proposal if it moves forward. “Passage of the legislation would be improper,” Seaton wrote. “We urge you to withdraw the legislation from further consideration.”
PCA proposal less fraught
The personal care assistant proposal has generated less antipathy. But detractors argue that it would insert a third party into what is an intimate relationship between patient and provider and generate unnecessary bureaucratic costs for the state. The child care and PCA proposals were initially introduced as separate bills, but were combined at the behest of the unions.
Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, chief author of the House proposal, argues that the implications of the legislation have been overstated. “The bill is a simple bill,” he said. “It’s basically about giving people a right to choose whether they want to be unionized or not.”
But Nelson acknowledges that opponents have succeeded in raising doubts about the soundness of the proposal, even among some DFLers. “They’re selling it as forced unionization,” he said. “The opponents are saying they’re going to force you into the union. That’s the message that they’re putting out, and it’s kind of resonating with people.”
The prospects for passage in either chamber remain muddled with barely more than a week left in the legislative session. On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Thissen said that the proposal wouldn’t come up in the House until its fate in the Senate had been resolved. “I think we’re going to watch and see what happens,” Thissen said.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk was noncommittal about whether the bill will ultimately get a floor vote. “It’s always had difficulty. That’s why it’s passed out without recommendation,” Bakk said. “I’m going to vote for it if given the opportunity.”
Eliot Seide, AFSCME Council 5’s executive director, insisted that he’s not discouraged by the bill’s tumultuous path through the House and Senate. “In a legislative process, there are always ups and downs and setbacks,” Seide said. “I think there’s a clear commitment from the leadership of the Senate and the House on these bills.”