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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Conservative Tantrum

December 02, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Minnesota will hold an organizing vote among childcare providers receiving state childcare subsidies, allowing providers to decide if they want to be represented by a union. Conservative policy leaders and advocates object. They’re backing a lawsuit to block the vote.

In this situation, we learn two things. First, union representation will only improve daycare conditions and affordable daycare availability. Second, the conservative objection is visceral, meaning it is based on feeling rather than thinking.

There’s Minnesota’s public policy challenge in a nutshell. The conservative public policy vision isn’t rooted in data analysis, cost-benefit assessments or any of the performance evaluation tools routinely deployed by Minnesota’s largest and most profitable businesses. Instead, it’s an exercise in political ideology masquerading as public policy.

Nothing reveals the conservative bias quite like raising a union flag. If it’s a union, involves a union, or raises the dim association with something that might be construed as a labor union, conservatives respond predictably. They foam at the mouth and jerk their knees in the most mouth-foamiest, knee-jerkiest of reactions.

Conservative policy leaders view organized labor as an anathema to everything they hold dear. And, they’re correct. Labor unions amplify the individual’s easily marginalized voice through collective, community action. Beating down one person is considerably easier than beating down a group. Consequently, conservatives are right to identify Labor as a threat in much the same way that a portly man’s girth is threatened by the treadmill.

I’m no longer in the daycare market. My kids are middle-schoolers. But, during our daycare years, I made an observation. Almost nobody gets rich providing daycare. A well-run, highly-efficient daycare center can achieve remarkable economies of scale while providing high level service at a high price point and realize a nice profit. Turn that organizational skill into a chain of daycare centers and, yes, somebody can make some serious money.

Mostly, however, daycare services for families of modest financial means are themselves modest enterprises. In-home daycare is the industry’s backbone. It’s overwhelmingly run by women who really enjoy caring for little kids.

In many respects, in-home daycare is the daycare industry, serving 48 percent of daycare slots. Childcare centers provide 36 percent of licensed daycare slots, leaving 16 percent as “other.” “Other” can mean a relative or an unlicensed provider caring for small children. Combine “other” with in-home care means that roughly two-thirds of Minnesota’s youngest children are served in a home-based setting.

Like all small businesses, in-home daycare providers struggle to provide good service while containing cost and managing risk. Many are sole-proprietor, sole-provider operations. The only unionized daycare provider would be the owner.

This begs an important question. What does union representation gain childcare workers? A voice. Not so much in representing workers in contract negotiations with management—remember, most daycare is delivered by a home-based sole provider—as representing childcare workers and served families in negotiations about policy, licensing and reimbursement rates with the State of Minnesota.

Conservatives want to block this vote, seeking to keep childcare providers isolated and voiceless. Where they should value strong families, conservative policy leaders are using their legislative authority to undermine improving childcare quality.

Minnesota is a successful state because 74 percent of women aged 21-65 participate in the workforce. This is among the highest percentages in the nation. That means we have a clear, unequivocal community interest in and need for high quality childcare. Good daycare moves Minnesota forward.

But, conservatives hear “union” and lose all capacity to focus on anything else. Perhaps if the childcare workers union renamed themselves “The Reluctant Association of Freedom Loving, Rugged Individualist Childcare Providers” conservative policy leaders might at least listen.

I doubt it.

Conservative objections and the conservative-funded lawsuit seeking to block the organizing vote are a giant distraction from what really matters.  Affordable, quality daycare, like affordable healthcare, are essential elements in Minnesota’s future prosperity equation, not an afterthought. Effective daycare provider representation and advocacy will keep strong daycare services on public policy’s front burners.

Moving Minnesota forward means facing problems as they are, not as we wish them to be. The best public policy advocacy is guided by Minnesota values and smart, cool-eyed data analysis, not by conservative ranting and union bashing. Let the daycare providers decide for themselves.

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