Faces legal challenge - Personal care attendants get OK to unionize

A matter of worker rights or political payback for union support? Disagreements over the right of in-home day care providers and personal care attendants to unionize aren’t likely to end despite a combined 27 hours’ debate on the floors of the Minnesota House and Senate. Nor is it likely to end with Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature on the legislation allowing workers to form unions. Foes of the measure have vowed to take legal action to block it, announcing their intentions May 29.

The law allows about 21,000 state-paid Minnesotans who work in the two fields to decide whether or not to join a union. The extension of collective bargaining rights covers personal care attendants or PCAs who provide care to a client in the client’s home or workplace and child care workers who operate private businesses in their homes. The groups have until 2017 to decide whether or not to organize.

“This bill is about ensuring the basic rights of undervalued workers to choose for themselves if they want to collectively bargain for better wages,” said Rep. Michael Nelson DFL – Brooklyn Center, the chief author of the House version of the bill. “These workers, who are predominately women, now have an opportunity to bargain for improvements in their lives and the lives of the children, seniors and people with disabilities they serve. No longer will our state be able to dismiss the immense value of their work.”

“Workers need the chance to come together to work for better wages, access to benefits and access to training,” said Jim Lovold, a disability advocate who receives PCA services. “When I do find people to work for me they almost always leave to go do something where they make more money. I support this bill because it will give advocates who use self-directed services and the people who work for us a voice in fixing the system.”

The House voted 68 – 66 May 20 to approve the bill. That followed a 35-32 Senate vote May 16, which followed 17 hours’ testimony. The time needed for the Senate hearing is believed to have set a state record. More than 100 amendments to the bill were submitted on the House side alone.

Green and purple-shirted advocates from the America Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Services Employees International Union (SEIU) Minnesota packed the capitol during the final days of the session. During the House deliberations, which began early the morning of May 19, they chanted, “We’re still here.”

Many began cheering after the House May 20 vote, which prompted legislators on the losing end of the vote to protest a breach of House rules. Several Republican legislators stormed out of the chambers in protest.

Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, said workers should have the right to decide if they want to engage in collective bargaining. “Society does not value the work or the labor provided to. But others disagreed vehemently. Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover questioned whether the measure was “union payback” and said it would hurt low-income families.

Whether or not the workers should have the right to unionize has been debated for years. AFSCME would represent child care workers; SEUI would represent PCAs. One argument for unionization is the years of reduction in various aid payments, leaving workers little choice but to unionize.

Critics say the union law would hurt small businesses and potentially cause disparities in care. Other foes have pointed out that at a time when union ranks are dropping, the potential for more members helps reverse that trend. The two unions gave more than $2 million to candidates in the 2012 elections. Until now PCA’s and child care providers had been prohibited by law from unionizing. The law doesn’t automatically create a union or force anyone to join. It allows the workers to vote to decide whether or not to unionize and gives them until 2017 to decide whether or not to do so.

“As we’ve said all along, this bill is simply about giving us the right to choose for ourselves,” said Darleen Henry, a 23-year-old home care worker from Rosemount who cares for her mother. “By forming a union, we can negotiate with the state for better wages, paid time off, even training. Mine and my mother’s future, as well as everyone else’s, could only get better.”

“I work hard as a PCA,” “aid Vicki Dewald, a home care worker from Detroit Lakes. “My work helps the state save countless dollars that would be spent on a long-term care institution if I wasn’t there to work with my grandson and keep him living independently. By forming a union we can improve conditions for workers, which will keep good PCAs and improve the quality of care clients receive. We should have a say in the programs that benefit us all.”