Ex-millworkers with service sector jobs see pay drop

Posted March 27, 2009, at 11:15 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Laid-off millworkers in eastern Maine who have taken jobs in the service sector have found their pay and benefits sharply reduced, primarily because much of the industry is not unionized, according to a report released in Maine Friday by the workers’ rights group Food AND Medicine.

The report surveyed 107 Eastern Maine workers who were dismissed during the past eight years, asking in person or by telephone how their health care, retirement security, new wages and other factors affecting their quality of life have changed.

“These are the people behind the statistics,” said Steve Husson, the project’s coordinator. “Through no fault of their own, they’ve been hurt, and we’ve got to change the policies now, or more people are going to be hurt.”

Food AND Medicine is a Brewer-based advocacy group that seeks higher wages and affordable health care for working-class Mainers.

The organization used the interviews to build the case for legislation aimed at increasing protections for U.S. workers, including the TRADE Act, which would renegotiate U.S. trade agreements, and the controversial Employee Free Choice Act, which would let workers unionize by having a majority of the work force sign authorization cards rather than using a secret-ballot election.

“It’s virtually impossible to organize in the service sector,” said Jack McKay, director of Food AND Medicine. “There are simply very few unions that have been formed in the last 30, 40 years … the cards are stacked so much against workers.”

Peter Gore, vice president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, disputed the group’s claim that current law does not adequately protect workers who want to unionize from employer intimidation, saying the National Labor Relations Board gives both sides a fair shot. Nothing will hurt Mainers’ standards of living more than further job losses, he said.

“The way you grow the economy in this country is to create new jobs,” Gore said. “You’ve got to have jobs in this country before you can unionize them.”

About 90 percent of the former mill workers surveyed last fall found some other form of employment by the end of 2008, but those workers rehired by service-sector companies such as Wal-Mart and The Home Depot complained they earn far less as non-union workers. Only 23 percent of those surveyed by Food AND Medicine still worked at union jobs by 2008, down from 93 percent in 2000.

Of the surveyed millworkers, all of whom had health insurance before they were laid off, 25 percent said they relied on their spouses’ insurance plans, and 21 percent reported ending up with no insurance at all. Thirty-five percent said they were working without any pension plan.

In the introduction to the report, 2nd District Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said Maine will need temporary unemployment assistance as well as long-term trade and health care reforms to give workers “a fair shake.”

“Workers who make a company profitable should also share in its success,” he said.

Michaud said the card-check unionization bill also would be “a step in the right direction.” First District Rep. Chellie Pingree also supports the legislation, but its chances of passing the Senate remain uncertain, even more so after Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he would not vote for it. Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe also oppose the bill.

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