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Home care workers vote to form union met with GOP criticism

Minnesota’s home care workers took a historic step toward forming a union on Tuesday, with a statewide election result finding a majority of voters in favor of forming a collective bargaining unit. The vote, which was made possible by a new state law passed in 2013, was greeted almost immediately by a slew of negative messages from Republican lawmakers and other conservative figures.

In a vote that brought in less than half of the state’s personal care attendants, or PCAs, 3,542 voted in favor of forming a union to negotiate future contracts, and 2,306 voted against, giving union organizers a margin of slightly more than 60 percent. The state’s PCAs will be allowed to negotiate through the Service Employees International Union, which backed the initiating legislation and helped organize the successful effort to approve the new union status.

The election process kicked-off Aug. 1 and ran through Monday.

SEIU leaders and home care activists celebrated the results at a labor-affiliated Minnesota State Fair tent on Tuesday, where some activists heralded the vote as a needed step for PCA employees.

“With our union, we will have a unified voice to fight for better conditions for ourselves and better care for those we serve,” said Sumer Spika, one of the leading activists behind the effort to unionize.

The vote brings an end to one half of a debate that has roiled among state policy-makers for years. Unionizing PCA workers, who could number as many as 27,000, according to some estimates, was approved under a law passed in 2013 that allowed the same organizing to take place for Minnesota’s home daycare operators.

The vote tally was met with critical statements from Republican leaders, including gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson, who said the election was an instance of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton returning a favor to union supporters who funded his campaign.

“The Dayton administration has set up this whole process to favor the unions, who are just looking for more money,” Johnson said.

Ben Golnik, chairman of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, said the issue would continue to resurface during the general election campaign, as it plays well with the crucial voting bloc of unmarried women.

“I think average, normal people see this as a case of government overreach,” Golnik said.

The daycare aspect of the law has drawn the larger proportion of attention and, from conservatives, the greater share of political animus.

Johnson went so far as to secure the endorsement of Jennifer Parrish, the lead plaintiff in a legal challenge to the new law. The state, arguing through the Attorney General’s office, successfully claimed that PCAs and daycare workers could not claim to have been injured by the new law before it went into effect.

The Minnesota lawsuit was temporarily suspended while the U.S. Supreme Court deliberated on Harris v. Quinn, a landmark case that originated in Illinois and set precedent for the process already underway in Minnesota and other states. In its ruling in that case, the court found that some workers who negotiate their pay and benefits with the state are not the same as other public employees, and cannot be forced to pay union dues, as occurs in a typical collective bargaining unit.

That new reality was highlighted in a press release issued by the Senate Republican Caucus on Tuesday afternoon, with Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, an unsuccessful candidate for the GOP gubernatorial endorsement earlier this year, claiming the unionizing effort would prove a useful test for labor organizers.

“If the union provides value for its members, it will survive,” Thompson said. “If it doesn’t, it will lose membership and die.”

Republicans and anti-union activists had questioned the state law throughout the organizing process, including a letter GOP lawmakers sent mid-August seeking neutral oversight for the election process. In a letter to Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, GOP Reps. Kathy Lohmer, Stillwater, and Cindy Pugh, Chanhassen, had asked for the addition of two neutral people and two anti-union ballot observers to assist in tabulating the election results. In their letter, the GOP legislators argued the election and vote-counting was solely in the hands of Dayton administration employees, who they said were pro-union.

Jesson sent a reply letter on Monday of this week, writing that the department had already chosen its observers for the vote counting, and would not alter them in response to the Republican’s concern.

“We agree that this is an important function,” wrote Jesson,” and that the interests of all parties must be appropriately represented when ballots are counted.”

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