Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm contradicted her own administration officials in her first public statement on the employment status of the private daycare providers unionized by a subsidiary of the United Autoworkers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Responding to Washington Examiner inquiries, a spokeswoman for Granholm said: “We do regard home-based childcare workers as public employees.” She would not elaborate, except to say that childcare workers fall “under Michigan's public employee relations law” – thereby rejecting the Michigan Department of Human Services policy defining home-based childcare workers as “self-employed and not an employee of DHS.”
That internal disagreement could have major repercussions for two lawsuits challenging the next wave of labor union expansion in state and federal court.
By classifying 68,000 licensed and unlicensed home-based providers as “public employees,” Granholm creates a major opportunity for increased union membership. An AFSCME representative explained in 2009 how the unions pushed for a public “employer of record,” even while admitting that in-home daycare businesses “provide a critical public service as independent contractors.” Private unions could never form around the small proprietors who manage and staff their own daycarebusinesses. “It’d be hard to have a shop meeting without a mirror,” joked Michigan daycare provider Sherry Loar.
Loar is suing DHS for creating the Michigan Home Based Child Care Council as an employer for home-based childcare providers like herself. Her lawsuit, argued by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, defends home-based providers as private businesses and notes a constitutional impediment to the unionization.
As the state acknowledged in November 2009, “DHS did not – indeed could not –grant MHBCCC the power to collectively bargain (original DHS emphasis).” Even so, DHS deducts $3.7 million annually in union “dues” from subsidy payments provided by the state to offset daycare costs for families near the poverty line. The subsidies are analogous to food stamps expended at local grocery stores. Unlike store owners, however, daycare providers receiving state money are treated as public employees.
Loar believes that Granholm “took advantage” of low-income daycare workers to fund unions.
If unchecked, this unionization of private daycare workers provides a template for expanding union rosters in the coming decade. Paralleling the Mackinac Center’s state suit, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has filed a class action lawsuit in Michigan federal court, arguing that despite a mail ballot in which most respondents opted for unionization, the state is violating the individual daycare providers’ First Amendment freedom of association.“People who didn’t vote for the union and don’t want to be in the union,” explained NRTW spokesman Patrick Semmens, “their rights are being violated.”
Granholm’s legal defense responded to NRTW with procedural maneuvers in a May 5 brief avoiding the public employee question. After explaining that the union contract conformed to the Michigan Public Employee Relations Act, state lawyers noted ambiguously that “Granholm and DHS Director Ahmed are not conceding that Plaintiffs are public employees.”
Granholm should talk to her lawyers before their next court date.
This Michigan dispute has nationwide ramifications.
If judicial precedent establishes babysitters in Michigan as public employees because their clients receive state subsidies, who isn’t? What about doctors who treat Medicaid patients? In a July 13 hearing on the NRTW lawsuit, federal Judge Robert Jonker asked union attorney John West essentially the same question. West called this unionization theory a “slippery slope,” saying public unionization “could be imposed on anyone” who directly or indirectly receives agovernment check if the state showed “added value.”
Translation: UAW and AFSCME can force private businesses into the public employee union mold. Then we can all work for the government.
Joel S. Gehrke Jr. is a National Journalism Center intern at The Washington Examiner.