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Day Care Providers Sue Over Union Vote

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- A group of child care workers backed by a coalition of conservative-leaning groups filed a lawsuit Monday aimed at blocking a unionization election for some home-based providers.

The lawsuit's plaintiffs, 11 in-home day care providers, are asking a Ramsey County court to declare the election "null and void." Named as defendants are Gov. Mark Dayton, who ordered the election, and Josh Tilsen, commissioner of the state's Bureau of Mediation Services, which he ordered to conduct it. Ballots are scheduled to be mailed out next week and tallied by Dec. 22.

About 4,300 Minnesota child care providers currently licensed to receive state child care subsidies for low-income children are eligible to vote in the election, leaving about 6,700 providers ineligible. Critics of the unionization effort believe that even the ineligible providers, or those who decline to join the voluntary union, still would be affected by subsidy rates and policies bargained between the union and the state.

"We believe the issues the unions discuss will impact, either directly or indirectly, all child care providers in Minnesota," said Tom Revnew, attorney for the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit contains two core arguments: that Dayton lacks the authority under state law to order a union election because most of those voting are business owners, not employees; and that providers not eligible to vote in the election would experience a violation of their constitutional right of equal protection under the law.

"The debate around unionization of family childcare providers started years before Governor Dayton was elected to office," Dayton's spokeswoman, Katharine Tinucci, said in a statement. "By refusing to call for an election, his predecessors denied licensed, registered family child care providers the chance to decide for themselves whether or not they want to form a union."

Dayton's administration previously defended itself against the suggestion that non-union child care providers would be left without a voice if a union is formed. Major changes to child care policy or subsidy rates still would require legislative votes, the administration argued, saying the legislative process would remain open to all participants.

"Matters which impact all licensed family care providers could be discussed with the exclusive representative as well as any provider, citizen or interested organizations," Dayton's commissioner of human services, Lucinda Jesson, wrote last week in a letter to a Republican lawmaker.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union organized the unionization drive, saying child care providers deserve union representation to bargain over issues ranging from subsidy rates to state and local regulations.

Jennifer Munt, an AFSCME spokeswoman, called the lawsuit "frivolous" and said Dayton invoked proper legal authority in ordering the election.

Dayton, a Democrat, has said he would not take sides in the election, but he's been a strong ally to unions throughout his political career. Revnew would not reveal who specifically is funding the lawsuit, but it was publicized by a group calling itself Childcare Freedom, a coalition of conservative-leaning groups that includes Minnesota Majority, the Minnesota Family Council, the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, Education Liberty Watch and the Minnesota Free Market Institute.

"This is just fundamentally wrong. We're interested in challenging government overreach," said Dan McGrath, executive director of Minnesota Majority, which has previously pushed for stronger voter identification measures, lobbied for a constitutional gay marriage ban and run an ad campaign criticizing Dayton's push earlier this year for an income tax hike on the wealthy.

McGrath said his group was contributing financially to the lawsuit.

Also Monday, majority Republicans in the state Senate announced that the Senate Rules Committee would hold a hearing Thursday morning to discuss Dayton's executive order. Previously, several Republican committee chairmen had threatened their own lawsuit to block Dayton's orders but so far have not filed one.

Hollie Saville, a plaintiff who owns a child care business in St. Michael, said she was alarmed to see the dispute take on political connotations. "This is not a partisan thing. I don't care what letter you have after your name," she said. Plaintiffs teamed up with conservative groups, Saville said, "because they were willing to help."

Another plaintiff, Lakeville child care provider Becky Swanson, said it's been 14 months since she last cared for a child who got a state subsidy — making her ineligible for the union vote. But she said she would be against the effort even if she could vote.

"Right now, I'm at the bargaining table," Swanson said. "I have relationships with my legislators, I can speak to who I need to about legislation. What role would the union play in that scenario? If I have an issue with licensing, will I have to go through the union to do it? There are all these unknowns."

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

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