Before sowing doubt in U.S. elections, Kim Crockett went after a union election

Kim Crockett spent two years trying to overturn the results of the largest union election in Minnesota state history

By: - October 17, 2022 7:42 am

Kim Crockett speaks before the Minnesota Subcommittee on Employee Relations in 2017 to urge lawmakers not to approve a labor contract with the SEIU. Screenshot.

Before Kim Crockett called the 2020 presidential election “rigged” in her bid for secretary of state, she spent two years trying to overturn another election’s results she didn’t like: The vote by thousands of personal care attendants to join the Service Employees International Union.

Crockett called the 2014 union election a “terrible fraud” that should be “tossed out,” and she made unsubstantiated claims that the union “hand-picked” voters, deceived workers into signing union cards and even forged them.

She helped lead an unsuccessful campaign to force the union to hold an election do-over and, when that failed, urged state lawmakers not to negotiate with SEIU over wages and benefits.

Crockett is a former bank attorney turned conservative activist who, if elected to secretary of state, will oversee Minnesota’s election administration.

At the time she was fighting the SEIU election, Crockett was a vice president at the conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment, where she directed the so-called Employee Freedom Project. It started in 2015 — a year after personal care attendants unionized — to “help free public employees from forced unionism.”

Crockett wrote prolifically about the union election, in blog posts and newspaper op-eds, arguing both that the election was fraudulent and that unions had no business representing personal care attendants because many of them care for their disabled or elderly relatives.

In one piece, she argued the union was “inserting itself into the private affairs of these families” and siphoning Medicaid dollars away from workers, despite the fact that no personal care attendant was ever required to pay dues if they didn’t want to.

In another piece, Crockett celebrated that SEIU was “on the ropes financially,” saying the union “preys on the vulnerable by taking their hard-earned union dues” and “undermines our political discourse by encouraging people to hate their country.”

Crockett did not respond to interview requests.

Historically, personal care attendants providing in-home care haven’t been allowed to unionize. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which protects the right of private sector employees to unionize, excludes domestic workers.

But in 2013, unions, workers and their Democratic allies in the state Legislature made a successful gambit to extend the option to tens of thousands of at-home personal care attendants.

Over Republican objections, Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers passed a law that made certain in-home personal care attendants employees of the commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget solely for the purpose of collective bargaining. Democrats applied the same rule to family child care providers that receive public subsidies.

The law didn’t change anything else about their jobs or how they were paid. PCAs continued receiving paychecks from various personal care agencies, which in turn billed the state’s version of the Medicaid program at rates set by the Legislature.

The only thing the new law did was open the door for unions to try to organize workers.

It was a high bar to clear. SEIU needed to collect signatures from 30% of roughly 27,000 eligible PCAs, a feat made more challenging than most union drives given the high turnover in the industry and the isolated nature of the work. Unlike most job sites, where union organizers can meet a bevy of workers in a given day, personal care attendants often work alone with their clients.

The union also faced two lawsuits in federal court by a group of personal care attendants who opposed unionization and sought to block the effort, though neither was ultimately successful.

After a little over a year, SEIU gathered more than enough union cards — 9,000 — to hold an election. Union ballots were sent out in what was the largest union election in state history. Although just a fraction of eligible workers voted — less than 6,000 — a majority voted in favor. Workers won the option to join SEIU with 3,542 voting to unionize.

From the beginning, workers in Minnesota were not required to pay union dues — about 3% of wages — because of a 2014 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case challenging unionized personal care attendants in Illinois. The court ruled that home-care aides, as partial public employees, cannot be forced to pay union dues like other government workers.

Four years later, the Supreme Court would extend the same logic to all government workers in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, ruling that public employees cannot be forced to pay the cost of collective bargaining.

Once a union was formed in 2014, personal care attendants could choose to leave the union at any time. The union won’t say exactly how many PCAs are dues-paying members of SEIU, but the higher wages and benefits that SEIU has helped win at the Legislature have benefited all of the roughly 20,000 at-home personal care attendants covered by their contracts.

In 2015, then-Gov. Mark Dayton signed off on the first labor contract negotiated by SEIU and state officials, which raised the minimum wage for personal care attendants paid through Medicaid from $9 to $11 an hour, just under the average hourly wage for PCAs at the time. The contract also guaranteed workers paid time off for the first time and funding for new training and a grievance process.

Since then, the minimum wage for personal care attendants has increased to $15.25 an hour,  and they earn time-and-a-half for working on holidays. The union also helped negotiate a higher wage for workers caring for clients with the greatest needs.

Crockett and the Center of the American Experiment entered the fray in 2016 — two years after the union election — when she helped start a campaign for a new election to get rid of the union.

Under the name MNPCA, Center of the American Experiment supported the efforts by a group of personal care attendants to sever ties between SEIU and all PCAs.

Crockett worked on the campaign with Doug Seaton, a conservative attorney who’s built a career fighting unions. Seaton, who did not respond to an interview request, had recently won a major victory in nullifying Dayton’s executive order for a union election by subsidized child care workers. (The Legislature later passed the law allowing them to seek unionization.)

He went on to found the Upper Midwest Law Center and was shortlisted by then-President Trump to serve on the National Labor Relations Board.

MNPCA elevated the stories of workers with various grievances against the union. Several workers complained that dues were deducted out of their paychecks without their consent. Part of the confusion was that SEIU automatically enrolled all of the 9,000 PCAs who originally signed union cards before the election, and some of them ended up voting against unionization. The union says it promptly refunded dues to anyone who said they didn’t want to be a member.

In July 2016, MNPCA launched a campaign to hold a decertification election. The threshold under state law to hold an election was the same as in 2014: 30% of eligible workers, or about 9,000 workers, had to sign cards saying they wanted an election to decertify the union.

From the start, MNPCA faced a major roadblock: Under state labor law, they only had a 60-day window in which to pursue a decertification election, and they couldn’t get an up-to-date list of all 27,000 in-home personal care attendants covered by the SEIU contract.

The state Bureau of Mediation Services — a state agency that oversees state labor law — only provided the 2014 list of personal care attendants used by the union to get the first election. The Department of Human Services, which maintained the most current list of personal care attendants, said their information wasn’t public under state law.

The group sued the state, and a Ramsey County judge sided with MNPCA and ordered that they get an updated list. The order would be overturned by the state Supreme Court four years later. But in 2016, with a new list in hand, MNPCA got to work knocking on doors.

When they failed to get enough signatures for an election, the list became fodder for fraud allegations by Crockett and Seaton. They said they weren’t able to reach many people on the list, claiming it included names of people who possibly didn’t exist, duplicate names, bad addresses and people who said they were never PCAs.

Phillip Cryan, executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, said the problems Crockett and Seaton described are familiar to anyone who has canvassed low-income workers — and not evidence of widespread fraud.

“Anytime you work with a list of thousands and thousands of people, but especially thousands of people living at the margin economically, there are going to be a lot of bad addresses and bad information,” Cryan said.

Low-income people tend to move frequently. They may be homeless or have other reasons for not putting their residential address on employment forms. Cryan said the union is still constantly cleaning up the information on its list of home care workers.

He said the list MNPCA got in 2016 was better than what the union received when it first started collecting signatures for an election. The union didn’t even get addresses or phone numbers, just a list of names and employers.

In December 2016, MNPCA filed a petition to hold an election to get rid of the union. MNPCA only submitted 2,400 signatures, but said it was enough by claiming that the bargaining unit was about 8,500 workers. Where they got that figure is unclear. Even on the group’s blog, they said they needed to collect 9,000 signatures.

The state Bureau of Mediation Services originally signed off on holding a new election, until SEIU challenged it because the group needed more than three times as many cards as they collected.

MNPCA continued to assert they had enough cards for an election until the BMS acting commissioner rejected their request for an appeal, writing that MNPCA, provided “no credible basis for its assertion that the unit is between 8,000 – 8,500 individual providers.”

During the next two years, MNPCA filed two more petitions seeking a decertification election and requesting an investigation into “fraud” in the 2014 election. They continued challenging that they needed 9,000 petition signatures, pointing to the union saying it represented about 20,000 workers.

MNPCA also pointed to this discrepancy — there were 27,000 workers when SEIU filed for an election, but the union claimed it represented just 20,000 workers — as evidence that providers were fleeing the home care programs subject to unionization. In reality, the reason was simply administrative. SEIU used a list based on one month of employment data rather than six months used by DHS, with high turnover explaining the difference.

MNPCA would eventually claim to have collected more than 10,500 signatures for a decertification effort, though the credibility of their petition has never been scrutinized. Anyone could sign a card on their website, which is still active years after the campaign ended.

The group never proved they collected enough signatures, and a decertification election was never held.

As their attempts at decertification floundered, Crockett and Seaton tried their case in the public square.

In 2017, Crockett wrote an op-ed in the Pioneer Press saying they wanted an investigation into the original election.

“The list used by the union had a huge percentage of non-existent names and addresses, or names that were not PCAs. Also, PCAs who never signed a union card are paying big union dues. Others have testified that SEIU organizers tried to pressure them into signing cards, or told them the cards were ‘just for information.’ This is fraud,” Crockett wrote.

Later that year, Seaton and Crockett got a hearing before a subcommittee on employee relations to explain their legal challenges to the union, even though the purpose of the subcommittee was simply to make recommendations on whether the Legislature should approve a labor contract, their second after the first in 2015.

Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, who chaired the subcommittee, allowed testimony so they “could hear both sides.”

Seaton and Crockett’s goal was to stall for time. If the anti-union activists could get the Legislature to delay ratification of a new contract, they would have more time to submit a petition for a decertification election.

Their argument to lawmakers was that the union was invalid, and therefore the Legislature shouldn’t ratify a second contract, which promised to raise the minimum wage to more than $13 an hour.

When one lawmaker asked Seaton if he believed the union election — which happened three years prior — was settled law, Seaton replied: “We would say no it isn’t.”

At the hearing, one Duluth PCA named Sara Madill said the union forged her signature on a union card and took dues from her without her permission.

James Gulley, president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, said they investigated the handful of claims of forged signatures and determined the signatures were valid. He said they refunded their dues anyways, “because we have no interest in having any worker as a member who doesn’t want to be one.”

“The claims against our union have grown more silly and outlandish with time as their attempts to win support from actual home care workers has failed,” Gulley said.

Then-Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said at the time that MNPCA was trying to take away the votes of the workers who did vote to unionize.

“What you’re asking us to do is say people who voted, who now have the option to be part of a union if they choose, they can opt out, shouldn’t have that right to cast their ballot and have their ballot,” Hilstrom said.

Crockett carried on the fight against the union for about another year, but it eventually petered out as the group couldn’t muster the signatures needed for a decertification petition.

In 2019, Crockett was suspended from the Center of the American Experiment, after making comments to a New York Times reporter that were widely denounced as racist. She then went to work for another right wing think tank, The Charlemagne Institute, before launching her bid for secretary of state, running on a platform of election security.

*A previous version of this story was incorrect about the DHS list of PCAs. They use a six-month list.


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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.