Challenges to union are heard

The fight continues over a 2013 state law that allows Minnesota’s Supporters and opponents, 27,000 home health care workers to unionize.  Supporters and opponents, along […]

The fight continues over a 2013 state law that allows Minnesota’s Supporters and opponents, 27,000 home health care workers to unionize.  Supporters and opponents, along with their clients, filled a St. Paul federal appeals courtroom for back-to-back hearings October 21. Rulings may be several months away.

Judicial panels from the Eighth U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard dual challenges to the law as many personal care attendants (PCAs) and their clients looked on. The two legal challenges to the unions were filed by nine Minnesota workers and by the National Right to Work Legal Foundation.

During the hearings on the two lawsuits, panel members questioned whether they had to power to order the union disbanded. Another focus was on the unions’ voluntary nature and the fact that workers aren’t required to join or pay dues. A third line of questioning is whether PCAs should be considered public employees.

The two lawsuits wound up in the federal appeals court after union foes lost at the lower court levels. PCAs on both sides of the issue spoke in court and afterward. Kris Greene, a Lakeville resident who cares for her daughter full-time, said she is thankful for the support she gets from the state and doesn’t need a union to represent her.

Debra Howze, a worker from north Minneapolis, said that as a woman of color, she takes the challenge personally. Howze said she is tired of outside organizations trying to dismantle what she and others worked hard for. Union supporters and state officials contend that the law enabling workers to unionize was passed correctly.

After years of debate, the 2013 Minnesota Legislature passed a law allowing home health care workers to vote whether to unionize. The approval followed one of the most high-profile and sweeping union expansion efforts in state history. Long legislative debates preceded approval of the vote.

Workers voted in 2014 to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and celebrated at the Minnesota State Fair. This year the workers and their union reached a contract with the state.

The law’s supporters said that they already are seeing the positives of collective bargaining, including higher wages starting at $10.75 per hour, paid time off, grievance processes, improved training and other benefits. They contend that no one is forced to join a union and pay dues, and said that the opposition comes from a small group of foes.

Scott Kronland represents the unionized workers. He told the judges that the union doesn’t influence members’ actions. “People would reasonably believe that not every individual agrees with the union,” Kronland said. “They can speak and say whatever they want, and when the union’s contract goes to the legislature, they can speak against it.”

The state also joined in the case to uphold the law that allowed unionization. Minnesota Solicitor General Alan Gilbert said that participation and dues aren’t mandatory. He said the union foes haven’t been able to show harm as a result of the contract.

The unionization effort has met opposition from some workers, family members of people with disabilities and “right-to-work” groups. They argue that although the workers aren’t forced to pay union dues, they are still essentially forced to join by association. They have also argued that union involvement is simply a grab of state funding for the PCA program.

Doug Seaton, an attorney for some of the individuals challenging the union, said the state law that allowed workers to organized is really designed to provide cash flow for the union without provision of any real services for the PCAs.

The National Right to Work Legal Foundation’s attorney, William Messenger, argued that although care attendants are paid using public health care money that doesn’t make them eligible for unionization. He
asked judges where the line should be drawn. “If exclusive representation is not confined to true employees, where does it end?”

Another argument the foundation has raised that the union infringes upon First Amendment association rights of PCAs. Having a union means a single person speaks for them, which some oppose. That argument was questioned by Appeals Court Judge William Riley. “They still could individually lobby,” he said. “Why is that illogical or unreasonable?”

It’s not clear what rulings elsewhere will mean for the Minnesota cases. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a home-care union in Illinois was unconstitutional. That was because fees were automatically subtracted from provider payments.

In Minnesota, a right-to-work challenge by day care providers was thrown out because no decision has been made on whether to unionize.