DETROIT (AP) — Peggy Mashke tends to 12 children for 12 hours a day at her home, so she was surprised to get a letter welcoming her to the United Auto Workers union.
"I thought it was a joke," said Mashke, 50, of northern Michigan's Ogemaw County. "I work out of my home. I'm not an auto worker. How can I become a member of the UAW? I didn't get it."
Willing or not, Mashke and 40,000 other at-home providers are members of a labor partnership that represents people across Michigan who watch children from low-income families. Two unions receive 1.15 percent of the state subsidies granted to those providers, or more than $1 million a year.
Mashke has given up about $100 this year, and while she says it's not a huge amount of money, she's among a small group of home-based providers suing in federal court to break free from organized labor.
"It's the principle. It's my constitutional rights," she said.
The plaintiffs claim they were driven into the union and forced to support it financially even though they work at home, are hired by families and are not state employees. In some cases, they are even related to the children in their care.
In 2006, the UAW and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, were formally approved as partners in a union called Child Care Providers Together Michigan. Only 15 percent of the providers cast ballots, but 92 percent were in favor.
The lawsuit, filed by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, claims that Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, and her administration cleared the way for the union in exchange for valuable political support from the UAW and AFSCME.
Michigan is one of at least 16 states where unions are mandatory representatives of personal-care workers, according to National Right to Work.
The state and the unions have defended the arrangement as the legal result of a process that was blessed by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. They say there is no role for a federal judge to second-guess what has occurred.
Union attorney John West acknowledged it's a "novel approach" to bring home-based workers under the labor umbrella.
"This is really a pretty important issue," West said at a July 13 court hearing. "We have a problem that's been festering for a long time in a lot of states where you have a large group of generally poorly paid, often not-very-well-trained employees.
"To try and resolve this issue and improve the situation, unions in a number of states have put a lot of effort into trying to organize these people, successfully in many instances," he said.
On its website, The UAW says the partnership "gives a much-needed voice and power" to child care providers who have problems dealing with the state's bureaucracy.
"They might not get their check from the state. You wouldn't believe how much that happens," a UAW vice president, Cindy Estrada, told The Associated Press. "Or they don't know they can get an increase in their subsidy if they get more training. ... You wouldn't believe how much an extra 10 dollars a day can help."
And there are providers who say the union has been helpful. Elizabeth Hall, 61, who looks after three children at her home in suburban Detroit, said she was having trouble getting paid by the state but the UAW "cut a lot of corners and got right to the source. I was very elated."
"The UAW is very resourceful," Hall said. "If there's anything you're not aware of, they bring the information to us."
Robert Jonker, a federal judge in Grand Rapids, Mich., has ruled that the seven-month-old lawsuit can proceed, at least in the early stages. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based think tank that promotes free market capitalism, is suing in state court to stop the union on other grounds.
Mackinac Center lawyer Patrick Wright called it an "underhanded scheme."
"It's an interesting issue," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
"The idea is for unions like the UAW and AFSCME to have a fertile and expanding area to organize to offset the membership losses because of plant closings — in the case of the UAW — or state and city downsizing in the case of AFSCME," he said.