When home care workers in Minnesota launched their campaign to form a statewide union less than two years ago, they set out to raise wages, improve working conditions and bring legitimacy and respect to a career path seen as critical to meeting the needs of an aging population.
They may not have set out to make history, but home care workers did just that today, formally petitioning the state to conduct what would be the largest union election in Minnesota history.
SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, the union seeking to represent an estimated 26,000 workers in state-funded home care programs, presented the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services this morning with more than 9,000 cards signed by home care workers requesting representation, exceeding the 30 percent threshold needed to trigger an election.
Afterward, workers gathered outside the BMS’s St. Paul offices, where union supporters like Jaycee Berens celebrated the grassroots organizing behind today’s historic filing – and looked forward to voting “yes” in the near future.
“I knocked on hundreds of doors each day,” Berens said of her involvement in the organizing effort. “I found behind those doors were caring, hard-working, dedicated people who love what they do.
“We are eager as home care workers to take care of clients that live in their homes, but we also need to be able to better provide for ourselves and our families.”
Many workers at the celebration stood alongside the clients who rely on their care. Nikki Villavicencio of Maplewood said she expects the quality and reliability of her care to improve when workers are at the table, participating in decisions that affect the home health care field.
Villavicencio said she’s long wondered, “Why is this field so undervalued? Why are the workers who support my family so invisible?”
“When workers receive better wages, benefits and training, it makes the whole community stronger,” she added.
Political, legal hurdles
Today’s filing marked another milestone on home care workers’ uniquely challenging path to collective bargaining – a path that became even more complicated with the Supreme Court’s Harris v. Quinn ruling last month.
When their organizing drive began two years ago, state law prohibited workers who provide self-directed care – workers hired directly by their clients but paid with state funds – from forming a union, treating them more like independent contractors.
Backed by SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, workers lobbied to change the law last year, and in May 2013 Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill passed by DFL majorities in the Legislature extending collective bargaining rights to both home care workers and child care providers.
Home care workers’ campaign to gain the signatures needed to file for an election kicked into high gear over the winter. Workers, organizers and supporters from the labor community fanned out across the state to collect more than 9,000 signed cards.
But the SEIU waited to file those cards until after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on Harris v. Quinn, a case that tested the authority of another state, Illinois, to extend collective bargaining rights to workers in state-subsidized home care programs.
The court’s decision was bad news for unions. It exempted home care workers in Illinois from having to pay so-called “fair-share fees,” but kept in place requirements that unions represent all workers in a collective-bargaining unit – even those who choose not to pay dues.
Not giving up
Outside the BMS, however, home care workers like Sumer Spika pledged to move forward with the organizing election, even if their union would not be able to collect fair-share revenue. “This ruling will not stop the home care workers in Minnesota who are joining together,” the St. Paul resident said.
After scrutinizing the authorization cards, the BMS will conduct an election by mail, likely later this summer. If more than half of workers who participate in the election vote “yes,” SEIU Healthcare Minnesota will be authorized as the workers’ exclusive representative.
That’s the celebration Nicole Taras, a recipient of in-home care who has muscular dystrophy, said she looks forward to most. Taras, who traveled to the BMS with her partner, Tyler Frank, said low wages and high turnover rates make it difficult to find caregivers she can rely on.
“Right now this is a throw-away job,” Taras said. “Because turnover is so high, I hardly ever get a fully trained person before they leave for a Walmart job or something better, and then Tyler has to do it.”
With a union, Frank said, comes better pay, more training opportunities and, hopefully, greater stability for home care clients like Taras, which would free him to pursue his own career aspirations.
“I’ll no longer have to choose between my goals and hers,” Frank said.