As Vermont has witnessed with campaign finance reform and Entergy, it’s costly to pursue things legislatively that might not meet judicial muster. The Legislature may be on that same questionable path once again with the proposal to unionize the state’s childcare providers.
The reason is the Harris v. Quinn case the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review, with oral arguments that began on Jan. 21. The issue involves the state of Illinois and the effort to unionize its healthcare workers. The plaintiffs claim the union violates the workers’ First Amendment right of association, among other things.
It’s being seen as highly relevant to the childcare worker unionization effort being pursued in other states. Minnesota, for example, passed a childcare unionization bill in early 2013, only to have the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in September grant a temporary injunction to the organizational effort. The court ruled to delay implementation of the Minnesota law until the higher court makes its decision on Harris v. Quinn.
Obviously, it would make sense for Vermont to put its childcare unionization bill on hold as well. It makes no sense to legislate in advance of a court decision that might render the effort moot.
That’s the practical side.
It’s also important to consider the course forward should the court reject the plaintiff’s argument.
What the bill does in Vermont is to unionize a complete industry (assuming the providers vote to accept the union). But it would not be a union in the typical sense. It’s not that employees alone would be unionized to bargain with those who employ them. The owners of the businesses would be part of that union. Even if they voted in opposition. And they would be forced to pay union dues. Even if the day care center were a sole proprietorship with no employees.
In other words, if you owned a day care center, and you had no employees, you would find yourself part of a union, forced to pay dues for services to a bargaining unit that means nothing to you.
If the Legislature were truly concerned that childcare workers were not getting the amount of compensation necessary, they have the power now to increase the subsidies given to families that qualify. By creating a union legislators are essentially setting up a situation in which the providers and the state are on the same side. That makes no sense.
But there is a much larger issue here. The problem has less to do with unionization than outcomes. And the outcome should be the need to raise the quality of the care provided at early ages.
How could that be achieved?
For starters, it would be preferable to have the childcare unionization effort be part of the Vermont NEA, not the American Federation of Teachers — which is the organizing group behind the unionization bill under consideration.
The Vermont NEA is the union that represents the teachers in our schools. And that’s where the focus on early education needs to be — in our schools.
Here’s the dirty little secret no one wants to address: The bottom quintile in Vermont’s schools is affected by poverty, and the sooner we reach those children the better. But that needs to happen in an organized setting, one supervised by professionals, and with a routine that involves proper nutrition, a safe environment and good instruction.
There are wonderful, imaginative, dependable daycare providers throughout Vermont. But we all know there is a significant percentage of our daycare operations that are the polar opposites. Why would we institutionalize something that is subpar when there is a better option?
In considering this, it’s also worthwhile noting that Vermont has lost 20 percent of its student population. Our schools have the room.
Legislators should consider the opportunity before them. If, as most contend, early education is a high priority, then this is a way to take full advantage of the opportunity to address the effect of poverty on our lower-performing students.
By following such a recommendation, those day centers whose parents don’t receive subsidies can operate as they have. Those whose parents do receive subsidies could elect to be part of the Vermont NEA, the advantage being the move toward early education at a meaningful level with a much better chance of improved outcomes for those most at risk.
The impending Supreme Court decision gives the Vermont Legislature time for some reflection. Let’s hope they use it.
Emerson Lynn, St, Albans Messenger