In a surprise move, a state Senate committee voted 3 to 2 Tuesday to reject a long-proposed and controversial piece of legislation that would allow child care workers to unionize. The move could doom prospects for a standalone bill this year.
Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Washington, who co-sponsored the bill, cast an unexpected, decisive vote against the legislation in the Senate Economic Development Committee. He described it as a difficult decision to make.
“It caught my attention that the only people that could vote for the union would be those who are subsidized by the state,” Doyle told VTDigger on Tuesday afternoon. “There’s not a lot of give and take when some of the people opposed to this union are not at the table.”
Doyle voted in favor of similar legislation last year, but said that this time, because only select groups of people could cast the initial vote deciding among child care workers whether there’d be a union, he’d shifted his position.
“It’s not that I’m not interested in child care,” Doyle said. The Senate’s senior most member toured around central Vermont just last week with a pro-union organizer, visiting child care providers. He touted his own labor-friendly record, and added that he’d even back increased state subsidies for child care workers, under the right circumstances.
Advocates for the legislation were puzzled by Doyle’s vote, pointing out that he’d sponsored the original bill, and that he himself was a member of United Professions American Federation of Teachers Vermont. Doyle was a founding union member at Johnson State College in 1972.
Doyle’s fellow Republican on the committe, Senate Economic Development chair Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, strongly opposed the bill. “As originally introduced, it would’ve covered the spectrum of early child care workers,” Mullin said. “They kept reducing that. We took out child care centers, then took out employees of non-center based workers.”
“Then just the providers who are small business owners and providers were left. It became discriminatory on who would benefit, by basically only benefitting those sole proprietors. And they’re not all in agreement. There are independent small business people who don’t want to be forced to join a union,” Mullin said.
Mullin also feared the legislation would create a bad precedent by making it possible for other industries which received state subsidies to unionize, or otherwise force collective bargaining on the state, at a time in which government budgets are tight.
“[Child care] subsidy payments are paid on behalf of families, really,” Mullin told VTDigger. “It’s not much different than subsidized rent, paid to help subsidize housing. Does this bill set the stage for landlords, who have subsidized tenants, to unionize, and negotiate directly with the state for subsidies?”
Sen. Don Collins, D-Franklin, joined Mullin and Doyle in rejecting the bill. Sens. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, and Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, backed the legislation.
After his November election, Gov.Peter Shumlin framed the unionization drive as one of his top legislative priorities. He met with child care workers last month during their lobbying appearances at the Statehouse, promising them that the legislation would pass this year.
In a statement, Shumlin said: “This bill is about improving childcare in Vermont by helping the providers…I’m disappointed the committee chose not to advance the bill.”
Shumlin’s commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, Dave Yacavone, who’s lobbied for the bill early and often, told VTDigger that the issue is still “critically important.” He called the committee’s rejection a “bump on the road” which wouldn’t derail the administration’s efforts.
Yacavone wouldn’t elaborate on how or if the Shumlin administration or other lawmakers might revive the bill.
The bill’s chief sponsor and an ardent backer of child care unions, Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, told VTDigger that it’s “better to have a setback in March than in April… better in the first year of the biennium than in the second year. Many options remain.”
Mullin pointed out that his committee “spent a month” on the bill already, and that it’d been debated on the Senate floor many times in the last session. He indicated he felt the panel’s vote should spell the end of the road for the bill.
“We heard from everybody,” Mullin said. “We had a public hearing. A vote was taken. The process was followed. If people want to subvert the process, they’re free to try to do so, but it would set a bad precedent if we don’t adhere to the processes we set.”
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, a former opponent who pledged to stay neutral this year, won’t allow the bill to come to the Senate floor with committee disapproval, as is standard procedure.
This contrasts with an exception he deliberately made for the controversial death with dignity bill last month, after a promise to his Democratic caucus.
“Clearly the bill had its day there in the committee,” said Campbell. “As I told the advocates for this, I was not going to do anything to block it from having its full committee hearing. If it passes, it passes: If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”