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High court union decision threatens Minnesota law

ST. PAUL -- Opponents to establishing unions for child care and personal attendant businesses say they think a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a related Illinois case also will result in overturning a 2013 Minnesota law.

The court Monday ruled that in-home care workers in Illinois who are paid by the state are not similar enough to government employees to be compelled to pay union dues. The court held on a 5-4 vote that plaintiff Pamela Harris and others who provide in-home care for people, including family members, with disabilities are not full-fledged public employees who could be forced to pay union dues to a public employees union.

Minnesota Republicans, including all four major GOP governor candidates, strongly agreed with the high court decision, while Democrats who supported the new law called it bad news.

"Today we received some great news," state Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, wrote to her constituents Monday.

Franson, a former child care provider, said the ruling "sends a clear signal to Gov. (Mark) Dayton and Democrats in the Legislature that they must cease their reckless attempts to force independent childcare providers into a government union."

A federal appeals court has put a hold on a case brought by owners of Minnesota child care businesses who want to stop the law. The court said it would wait for the Supreme Court to rule.

Early in his term, Dayton, a Democrat, issued an executive order to allow child care providers who receive state subsidies to join a union to negotiate how much the state pays them, as well as state rules that would affect them. A court ruled that the governor did not have authority to do that and overturned the order.

However, once Democrats took control of the Legislature in 2013, they passed a law like Dayton's order, and he signed it into law. It included both child care workers who receive state payments and health-care attendants who care for disabled and elderly in their homes.

Dayton said the high court ruling is a civil rights setback.

"If people can't vote for themselves to decide if they want to join a union or not, that's just not democracy," Dayton said in a statement.

Opponents, however, said people who own the child care and health care attendant businesses would have no choice but to pay union dues.

“These laws are part of a scheme to artificially boost union membership and if the law were implemented in Minnesota it would be harmful to independent care providers by driving up their costs and forcing them to pay dues that are used in part for political activities that they might not support," State Director Mike Hickey of the National Federation of Independent Businesses said.

Hickey said the Minnesota law was modeled after the Illinois one that justices struck down.

Last year, a judge in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota threw out legal challenges to the Minnesota statute, saying they were premature because the unions weren’t yet functioning and might not come into being. Opponents of the Minnesota unionization law appealed the decisions to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments in one of the cases but has not issued a ruling, said Doug Seaton, an attorney representing child care workers opposed to the state law

Seaton said he expects the appellate court will soon rule in the case, sending it back to the lower court.

“I think ultimately we will prevail,” Seaton said.

Union supporters said they will continue to organize.

“This ruling will not stop the home care workers in Minnesota who are joining together to form a union to raise our wages, have a voice on the job and improve conditions in the healthcare field,” said Sumer Spika, a St. Paul home care worker. “Our state faces a looming workforce crisis in public home care programs, and this decision will not stop home care workers from fighting to ensure quality care for all Minnesotans. Forming a union will help workers while also protecting the rights of the elderly and people with disabilities by allowing them to remain in their homes.”

Eliot Seide, director of AFSCME Council 5 added: “Child care providers and home care workers will continue to have a strong voice for good jobs and quality care for their consumers. This decision doesn’t stop them from organizing and collectively bargaining with states.”

AFSCME, formerly the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, already represents 43,000 state workers. It was working to organize thousands more child care providers.

“We won’t rest until every worker has a voice on the job,” Seide said. “It’s the only proven way for caregivers to improve their lives and the lives of the families in their care.”

All four Republican governor candidates cheered the court ruling.

"This is a big deal," Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said.

All four candidates issued statements similar to businessman Scott Honour, who said that he would fight for small businesses and parents. The GOP candidates have been using the child care issue against Dayton.

The decision left intact the court's 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. That ruling said unions could collect such compulsory dues used for non-political activities under collective bargaining agreements.

"Abood involved full-fledged public employees, but in this case, the status of personal assistants is much different," conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.

Illinois law excludes such in-home caregivers from retirement and health insurance plans and the state does not assume liability for actions taken during the course of their employment, Alito noted.

"Illinois deems personal assistants to be state employees for one purpose only, collective bargaining," Alito wrote.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, and Reuters contributed to this report.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.