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Judge Blocks Child Care Union Vote

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(credit: Jupiter Images)

(credit: Jupiter Images)

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Ramsey County judge delivered a setback to union organizers and a rebuke to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday by halting a pending election seeking to unionize thousands of Minnesota child care workers.

In issuing a temporary restraining order, Judge Dale Lindman said the unionization issue should have gone through the Legislature rather than Dayton’s approach of calling the vote through an executive order.

“If unionization of day care is to become the law of Minnesota, it must first be submitted to the lawmaking body of the state,” Lindman said after hearing three hours of arguments from a bank of attorneys. His order remains in effect at least until another court hearing on Jan. 16.

Opponents of the union drive argued that Dayton governor exceeded his powers and designed an election that would have prevented many providers from weighing in. Their attorney, Tom Revnew, told the judge that nothing in state law “directs small business owners or employers to engage in an election. It’s simply not there.”

Lindman said he was “bothered” that less than half of the state’s 11,000 in-home child care workers were eligible to vote. Eligibility was extended to about 4,300 providers who are currently licensed to receive state subsidies to care for low-income children.

Ballots had been printed and ready to go out by mail this week. But the ruling effectively stalls the union push. And organizers predicted it would be hard to succeed in making their case before a Republican-controlled Legislature.

Dayton said in a statement from his office that he respected the court’s decision. He said he asked to meet with Attorney General Lori Swanson in order to determine his next steps.

“I continue to believe that in a democracy, people should have rights to elections to determine their own destinies,” Dayton said.

Solicitor General Alan Gilbert argued in court that Dayton was within his jurisdiction because the proposed union wouldn’t be able to reach any binding agreements with the administration. Anything the sides wanted to enact ultimately would have required legislative approval.

Two Minnesota unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, had been seeking the union vote for several years. Proponents argued that providers who operate in part on state subsidies had the right to organize and discuss with state agencies over subsidy rates as well as other rules and regulations governing in-home care. They said a union would strengthen the voice of child care workers at the Capitol.

But critics said many providers ineligible to participate in the vote would still be affected by many of the matters that would have bargained between a child care workers union and the state. The plaintiffs were a group of child care providers, with assistance from a coalition of conservative-leaning groups.

Becky Swanson of Lakeville, a plaintiff and a child care provider for more than 18 years, was elated by the ruling. Swanson said she usually cares for about 10 children in her home but wouldn’t have been eligible to vote because she hasn’t had a subsidized child in the past year. She said she didn’t see any benefit in a union.

“What is the union going to do for me?” Swanson asked. “Are they going to change my work environment? It’s my home.”

While the ruling pushed the issue into the hands of lawmakers, it’s unlikely Republicans who currently control the state House and Senate would oblige the unionization drive. Multiple legislative leaders criticized Dayton for ordering the union vote, and lawyers for the Republican Senate majority even filed a brief supporting the lawsuit.

Jennifer Munt, spokeswoman for AFSCME’s Minnesota chapter, said she doubted supporters would take their case to the Legislature, saying it would likely be futile.

“The legislators who claim to be their voice are the same legislators who gave them a pay cut,” Munt said. “They are the same legislators who are ignoring the parents who need subsidies for child care in order to go to work. And they’re the same legislators who cut quality improvement grants for child care providers.”

Carol Nieters, executive director of the involved SEIU unit, said the lawsuit had “succeeded in throwing a wrench into the wheels of democracy.”

Ballots would have been tallied on Dec. 22. The goal was to have a union in place before the next legislative session, which begins Jan. 24.

State Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the ruling could extend beyond the child care issue because Dayton hasn’t been shy about using executive orders to shortcut the Legislature.

“I’ve had some people say to me, ‘If the governor is able to do this, what else could he do,'” Hann said. “I think this has some broader implications.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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