A rubber stamp no more

House committee scrutinizes the controversial home care worker contract

It’s not often a hearing of the Subcommittee on Employee Relations packs the room. But the chambers were filled for a hard-hitting legislative session at the State Capitol that put the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and their backers on notice that things have changed.

The message? No more business as usual when it comes to public employee union contracts considered for approval by state legislators. The abrupt change caught Democrats off guard.

“I have served on this subcommittee as the longest serving member,” said Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center). “I have never seen what’s about to happen today happen in this subcommittee ever and the politicization of these particular issues.”

In her first action as Subcommittee on Employee Relations Chair, Representative Marion O’Neill (R-Buffalo) upped the oversight function of a legislative body that until now was viewed by many as a rubber stamp for negotiated state labor agreements.

It wasn’t just any union contract under the microscope before them, but the renewal of a two-year agreement tied to a disputed 2014 union election for 27,000 personal home care assistants (PCAs). Lawmakers heard a laundry list of irregularities and allegations of fraud related to the 2014 union election that led to SEIU Healthcare Minnesota representation of many personal care assistants.

“I felt it the obligation of the committee to hear those details and that information before we weigh in on the PCA contract,” Rep. O’Neill explained. Opponents came from around the state to get their say: parents, small business owners of agencies caught in the middle, and canvassers helping the more than 7,500 Minnesotans who want the state to give them a chance to vote down—i.e., decertify—the union. That’s twice as many PCAs as voted to form the union in 2014.

“I didn’t want to be in it, they forged my signature, I signed nothing with them and it just got to a point where I felt like I was being harassed to join [SEIU Healthcare MN],” said Sara Madill, a Duluth PCA who helped care for her sister.

It was David and Goliath, home care mothers and fathers against top SEIU officials, families dependent on a Medicaid stipend to care for loved ones at home versus union bosses siphoning off an estimated $4.7 million a year from the program for dues.

“I do not believe that the SEIU is here for our best interests but for their own political and monetary gain,” said Kris Greene, who brought her 24-year old daughter Meredie with her. “I am a mom taking care of my daughter in my own home. I am not a state employee.”

Former Minnesota Senator Al DeKruif told the panel that none of his family or PCAs who help care for his son Jason even got a chance to vote in the 2014 union election. “I believe the SEIU vote to unionize PCAs was fraudulent, as I’ve learned other PCAs were also not given the opportunity to vote,” DeKruif told lawmakers.

American Experiment Vice President Kim Crockett and MNPCA attorney Doug Seaton made the case that the subcommittee should reject the contract that recognizes SEIU as the exclusive bargaining representative of home care workers in the PCA Choice program. Otherwise, the effort to force the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation to hold a union decertification election could be put on hold for another two years.

“We have uncovered some serious problems and those problems could amount to fraud,” Seaton testified. “They certainly amount to mischief, misfeasance or malfeasance, something that calls into question the original election that brought the SEIU representation into being.”

But SEIU Healthcare MN officials denied any wrongdoing and defended the union’s record.

“The claims against our union are growing more silly and outlandish with time, and their attempts to win support of actual health care workers have failed,” SEIU Healthcare MN President Jamie Gulley said. “The fact remains that health care workers support their union.”

Crockett and Seaton joined forces last year to help personal care assistants organize a statewide drive to force an election to decertify SEIU Healthcare MN. Crockett leads American Experiment’s Employee Freedom Project, while Seaton is a veteran labor attorney on the employer side. Their efforts have resulted in the delivery of more than 7,500 postcards from PCAs to the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services in support of a union decertification election. Seaton also represents seven home care workers challenging the Dayton administration in court.