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A new U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows state-paid home health workers to opt out of paying union dues could upend one of the most sweeping union expansion efforts in Minnesota history.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled Monday that thousands of home health care workers in Illinois cannot be required to pay fees that help cover a union’s costs of collective bargaining. The court said that while the workers are paid through state subsidies to provide care, they are not full state employees and do not have to pay union dues.

The decision could have far reaching implications in Minnesota, where the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has been working to unionize home health workers while the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has been doing the same for child-care workers.

Local unions believe roughly 30,000 state-paid home child-care providers and home health workers are primed to organize, as the state tries to hold rates down and workers have had little success pressing for higher subsidies.

In a statement released late Monday night, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota President Jamie Gulley said, “Home care workers in Minnesota have made clear to our union that no court case will stop them from their efforts to form a union with us to improve home care for the people that they serve. Their work is critical, and we know they will continue to fight alongside the seniors and people with disabilities they serve to improve home care for Minnesota families.”

Child-care lawsuit ongoing

On Monday, child-care owners said they are optimistic the high court’s opinion will apply to their situation.

“The two cases are nearly identical, which gives us hope,” said Rochester child-care provider Jennifer Parrish, who leads the Coalition of Union Free Providers. “Child-care providers didn’t want this. The taxpayers of Minnesota didn’t want this.”

Parrish has sued the state to block unionization of child-care workers. Parrish v. Dayton is before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which put the case on hold pending the Supreme Court ruling.

But DFL Gov. Mark Dayton showed no signs of backing down from the legal fight. A spokesman said the state will not drop its challenge to the lawsuit.

“The court has voted to roll back the cause of civil rights in America,” Dayton said.

A St. Paul legal expert said the impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the state’s child-care lawsuit is far from clear. “They’re different issues,” David Larson, a professor of labor and employment law at Hamline University School of Law. “You certainly can’t say that this case decided [Monday] controls what happens in Minnesota.”

Larson said that Minnesota’s challenge is based on whether the workers in Minnesota can vote to form a union, while the Illinois home care providers had a union. The central issue in the Illinois case was mandatory union dues.

“That is a very different question,” Larson said.

“It’s not over,” said Dan McGrath, with the Minnesota Majority, which has fought against unionization efforts. “Additional legal actions are necessary.”

Election fallout

The ruling is reverberating through the state’s gubernatorial race.

With DFLers in control of the governor’s office and the Legislature, a measure passed calling for a unionization vote among state-paid home health workers and home child-care providers. Dayton threw his full support behind child-care unionization.

On Monday, the state Republican Party and Dayton’s GOP rivals said the Supreme Court ruling was a necessary backstop to one-party DFL control at the Capitol and proof of Democratic overreach on union expansion. The message is one they expect to blare loudly all the way to Election Day.

Jeff Johnson, the GOP’s endorsed candidate for governor, said the unionization effort was merely a way for Dayton and Democrats to “use the livelihoods of hundreds of small businesswomen throughout the state as collateral to pay back his union campaign contributors.”

GOP gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert said the decision reaffirmed the right to care for family members or run a business “without heavy-handed government intrusion through mandatory public employee union membership.”

Kurt Zellers, a gubernatorial candidate who was House Speaker when Dayton was pushing unionization, said he wrote a letter to Dayton at the time urging him to pull back. “It was misguided, and it was payback for the unions,” Zellers said of Dayton’s efforts. “Hopefully, this means they will now stop.”

GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Honour said the move to unionize was “working against parents, working against small business owners, certainly child-care providers.”

State DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin called the ruling “devastating” and said it jeopardizes 100 years of union advancements wages, benefits and working conditions.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said the Supreme Court decision was one “nugget” in a larger fight.

“It’s a bad ruling … but it’s not going to stop us from organizing,” he said on MSNBC. “They may have more money, but we’ve got more people, and organized people beat organized money.”

He said this is part of a larger Republican plan to weaken American workers.

“This is a blow to working people. It’s a political blow,” he said. “These people know they can’t win in a fair fight.”

Highlighting the high-stakes political ramification of the ruling, DFLers sent out a fundraiser immediately after the decision urging people to fight back.

Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. • 651-925-5043 • 651-925-5044