Minnesota home care workers unionize
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota’s home care workers have voted to create their own union, the state said Tuesday after counting results.
The union will represent about 27,000 workers who are paid by the state to care for disabled or elderly patients.
About 60 percent of the 5,872 workers taking part in the election voted to unionize, according to the state’s Bureau of Mediation Services.
The election was organized by the Service Employees International Union, and union officials called it the largest of its kind in Minnesota history.
Although 27,000 workers were eligible to participate in the election, union supporters needed only a majority of the votes cast in order to unionize.
“This is what democracy looks like — not everybody is going to vote,” said Sumer Spika, a home care worker who supports the union.
“The bottom line is that the majority of people who voted, voted ‘yes’ — and we are able to form our union.”
“It was close, and disappointing that so many didn’t vote,” said Cindy Lindbloom, a home care worker in St. Joseph, who joined other workers this summer in a lawsuit trying to block the union effort. “We’ll just get ready for an appeal, that’s all.”
The results Tuesday likely will prompt more litigation and won’t resolve the debate among Democrats and Republicans about whether the home care workers should be allowed to organize a public sector union.
The vote authorizes the SEIU to bargain with the state on the workers’ behalf. The state is then obligated to meet and negotiate in good faith a labor agreement, according to Minnesota Management and Budget officials.
Not all home care workers in Minnesota will be part of the union. Instead, it applies only to those care attendants who help clients in certain state government programs. In these programs, clients hire the workers and direct the care they provide, while the state pays for the services.
In some cases, the care allows clients to live in their homes, rather than in nursing homes. Some care attendants are relatives of their clients.
The mail-in union election started Aug. 1 and ended Monday. State workers at the Bureau of Mediation Services headquarters in St. Paul spent two hours Tuesday morning just opening envelopes containing the ballots. Tabulating the vote took more than four hours.
The bureau has overseen more than 20 union elections this year, but the home care vote was unusual in size and the composition of the workforce, said Josh Tilsen, the agency’s executive director.
Whereas about 27,000 home care workers were eligible to vote, most other union elections this year have included fewer than 100 eligible votes, according to agency records.
Plus, the nature of home care provided by the workers means they don’t congregate in a single office setting.
“Usually, there’s a pretty good majority one way or another because the employees get together and talk about it,” Tilsen said. “This is an unusual group because it was so large, and because they’re a dispersed workforce.”
A U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer about a similar home care union in Illinois means the new union in Minnesota won’t be able to collect “fair share” dues from workers who don’t want to pay them.
That could weaken the union compared with most others in Minnesota, where such dues typically are required.
Republicans cheered the distinction Tuesday.
“This should be the model for all public employee unions in our state,” state Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said in a statement.
Union supporters said they were focused on their election victory — not on whether the size of the “no” vote suggests that many home care workers will opt against paying dues.
“We are a force to be reckoned with,” said Debra Howze, a home care worker and union supporter from Minneapolis. “We need raises. We need health care.”
This month’s union vote was made possible by DFL-backed legislation passed in 2013 that remains controversial with Republicans. The law also allows certain child care providers the chance to organize and collectively bargain in a public employee union.
Officials with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a Virginia group with a pending legal challenge to Minnesota’s law, said the vote tally Tuesday doesn’t show significant support for the union.
“About 13 percent of the providers in the state voted for union representation, yet the union will be recognized as the exclusive representative for all the providers,” spokesman Anthony Riedel said in a statement.
But Peter Rachleff, a labor historian in St. Paul, argued that the unusual composition of the home care workers — where their work doesn’t bring them into contact with one another — makes it difficult to interpret the final vote tallies.
And, Rachleff said, it’s impossible to interpret the sentiments of those who didn’t vote, adding that votes from supporters still exceeded those from opponents.
In the coming weeks and months, union proponents will be focused, he said, on making sure they have broad support among workers.
“Any worker who is employed in a union setting has the right to begin a decertification petition if he or she wants,” Rachleff said.