MN labor expert: Effect of home health care unions unclear


Tuesday's announcement that Minnesota's home health care providers will hold an election to unionize led to a fierce eruption of responses from both Minnesota's union backers and critics.

In its statement following the election, the SEIU (the union the workers would join), was obviously positive, saying workers "can win improvements to their jobs and to the care they provide for elderly and disabled Minnesotans" and even sharing stories of workers who they say will be helped.

See also: Hamline adjunct professor become first to unionize

But other public figures were fairly critical of the election, which would impact an estimated 26,000 workers. Republican gubernatorial candidate Kurt Zellers unsurprisingly came out against the election, saying in a statement that "Minnesotans shouldn't be forced to join a union or pay dues against their will, and once again, it's clear by this announcement that Governor Dayton has sided with liberal special interest groups."

And in an interview with the Star-Tribune, Minnesota HomeCare Association CEO Neil Johnson said that even if the workers were to go forward and form a union, it probably wouldn't do much good, mostly due to the fact that home health care workers don't make much as is.

"If you're making $10 an hour, how much can you really afford to pay in union dues?" Johnson said.

But we talked to one labor expert who says that kind of speculation - from both sides - is pretty much pointless as of now. John Budd, the chair of the Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies at the University of Minnesota, says there's far more to the issue than just health care or wages, and with so many factors in flux, there's no way to tell what unionizing could mean.

"I think what you're reading are diverse perspectives on both sides that are partly based on hopeful, wishful thinking, and only partly based on reality," said Budd. "But ultimately these are very complex matters and nobody really knows for sure."

Budd says that if this was an election for something like an automotive union, that'd be easier to predict, since we've seen plenty of those unions. But home health care unions are a different story. There are only a few examples of those kinds of unions around the country, in places like Illinois, Washington and Michigan. And they've had a mixed record on whether or not they've helped their members overall.

"Take Michigan," Budd says. "I think Michigan's an interesting example. In the early years, the SEIU was able to win wage increases. But then the statehouse changed, which weakened union power."

Specifically, Budd's referring to a Michigan law where the state determined that home health care workers weren't considered public employees, making the home health care union in the state virtually powerless. But in a place like Washington, the SEIU is still doing well, with nearly 43,000 home health workers in their ranks.

Unionizing is a long process, Budd says. It'll involve an election in a few weeks or month, then it'll take even longer than that for the union to decide how it will negotiate. Budd said that with so many factors involved in the future, from pending legal rulings to what the composition of the State House will look like after the elections, there's no telling what the unionization could actually mean for workers in a year or two.

And the last thing that could really throw a kink in the whole situation is the Supreme Court's recent ruling saying that home health care workers aren't required to pay union fees if they don't want to. That sort of rule has already had a detrimental effect in Michigan, but the SEIU has said it will continue to try to recruit more members, despite the ruling.

Send your story tips to the author, Robbie Feinberg. Follow him on Twitter @robbiefeinberg.