Proposed law may weaken unions

Posted Feb. 05, 2011, at 12:05 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 05, 2011, at 12:23 a.m.

Maine is poised to become a battleground state over an organized labor issue that is popping up around the country, driven by new, so-called “right-to-work” legislation.

Maine is not currently one of the 22 right-to-work states. Employees at unionized businesses in those 22 states who don’t join the union don’t have to pay their share of the costs for collective representation and contract bargaining handled by the union.

In Maine, workers don’t have to belong to a union if they don’t want to: The “closed shop” has been illegal since 1947, according to Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO. But employers and unions are allowed by law to agree that all workers who benefit from representation and bargaining share the costs, whether or not they’re in the union.

That would change under right-to-work legislation proposed by several Republican legislators aimed at both private sector and public sector workplaces.

“Individual employees shouldn’t be forced to pay dues as a condition of employment,” said Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway. “In the end I don’t want people to think I’m anti-union, because I’m not. I think the union movement has been a very positive thing in most cases. What I do think is this really forces the unions to be more responsive to their members.”

One of Winsor’s bills, LD 309, dealing with municipal employers and employees, was referred to the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee last week. He has also submitted a bill aimed at the private sector; Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, and Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, have introduced similar bills that will likely be combined.

Proponents say right-to-work states are stronger economically, and suggest that making Maine the only right-to-work state in the Northeast would aid in business attraction and growth. Opponents, however, argue against the economic benefits and say the effort is a thinly veiled attempt to weaken unions, which they assert protect wages and working conditions for the middle class.

“It does nothing to create good-paying jobs. In reality, it undermines workplace standards and drives down conditions of working people,” said Schlobohm. “It’s a bad idea to pursue this policy in Maine. This is a complete distraction from the issues that are important to the entire state. If we want to move our economy back on track, workers need to have the ability to come together and have strong organizations that put a check on corporate power, and make sure the jobs we have are good jobs.”

The AFL-CIO has about 30,000 members in Maine, said Schlobohm. Combined with public sector union members, there are roughly 75,000 union members in the state. Bruce Hodsdon, president of the Maine State Employees Association, said his union represents about 10,000 paying members. Another 2,500 are covered, but aren’t dues-paying members. Members pay $9.75 a week for dues; covered, nonunion employees pay about half that for their share of representation and bargaining, Hodsdon said.

Hodsdon said he saw this push as coming from outside Maine, and his group is concerned.

“We’re going to fight, and fight hard, on this issue,” said Hodsdon.

Schlobohm argued that allowing employees to benefit from the union’s work, but not contribute financially, was akin to letting a town’s resident enjoy public works such as roads, sewer and water but not taxing them.

The Northeast, Upper Midwest and West Coast states are generally not right-to-work areas. Right-to-work states spread along the south and in the central part of the country. The closest right-to-work state to Maine is Virginia.

While the concept has been debated in recent years with regard to the union that represents state workers, it has been less of an issue in the private sector. Winsor last made a similar proposal about a decade ago, in the Democrat-controlled 119th Legislature. It failed along party lines.

“I just think that right now at a time when the economy’s real low, and there’s a movement in the state to be cognizant of anything that gets in the way of job creation, what’s the worst that could happen?” said Winsor. “It doesn’t work out and in four years it gets taken away — I don’t see any way to lose in this case.”

Peter Gore, vice president for advocacy and government relations at the Maine State Chamber, acknowledged that there hasn’t been a big right-to-work push from the private sector, but added that there wouldn’t necessarily be when the Democrats were in charge. It was a nonstarter. But that has changed with the Republican takeover of the Legislature and Blaine House.

The state chamber has not taken a stance on any of the right-to-work proposals, said Gore. But there is definite reason to be interested in the issue, he said.

“It is a fact that there are no right-to-work states in New England. If Maine were to enact right-to-work legislation, would that have an impact on our business attractiveness and competition? Quite possibly,” said Gore. “But I’m sure it will be a hammer and tong debate.”

Greg Mourad, director of legislation for the National Right to Work Committee, said his group has right-to-work bills introduced in Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Mexico, Missouri, New Hampshire, Washington, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Maine.

He called it a “widespread” effort and noted that Republicans “are more receptive to the right-to-work idea than Democrats.” He said his group has several thousand members in Maine, and will work to mobilize them to support the proposed legislation. He pointed to a number of economic factors, including growth in non-farm private sector jobs from 1999 to 2009, which he put at 3.7 percent in right-to-work states, -2.8 percent in non-right-to-work states and 0.4 percent in Maine.

“I agreed to sponsor the right-to-work bill so we can investigate those claims,” said Snowe-Mello. “This bill will give us the opportunity to have an open and honest discussion of whether or not a right-to-work law will create more jobs, and will consider the claims of right-to-work proponents.”

The AFL-CIO, however, points to other numbers, asserting that in 2009, the average manufacturing worker in Maine earned $19.97 per hour, $3.17 more than their counterparts in right-to-work states. The union also points to worker safety issues and others in support of the current situation.

“If they’re right, and in the end the claims are not correct, then even I won’t support this legislation,” said Snowe-Mello.

Snowe-Mello said one group that has been pushing hard for the legislation was Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine, a trade organization. That group did not return calls for comment. A similar Maine group, Associated General Contractors of Maine, is studying the language of the bills as they are drafted, said CEO John O’Dea. The group hasn’t taken a stance on the topic, said O’Dea, but it will be an important one for the membership.

Geoffrey Cummings, a labor attorney with the Portland firm Preti Flaherty, said he didn’t think the right-to-work issue was on the front burner for many Maine businesses.

“Throughout Maine, there are a fair number of unionized businesses. We here in Maine have some seasoned union businesses who have been working with and living with unions for a long time, [including] the paper mills, Bath Iron Works,” said Cummings. “For these businesses here in Maine, it’s the same old, same old. There’s not a whole lot to complain about.”

Proponents of right-to-work push the economic benefits and job attraction points, he said, but reality tends to be a bit more complex.

“The mere passage of a right-to-work law is not going to cause someone to view a state very differently,” suggested Cummings. “They’re going to look at the whole package of business-friendly laws or business-unfriendly laws to determine if it’s the type of place they want to place a business.”

Unionized businesses in Maine have generally established strong relationships between management and unions, he said, and work within a laid-out set of rules.

That was the case at Atkins Printing in Waterville, said David Christie, the company’s vice president. The 100-year-old company has 14 employees, and the production crew are all members of the Waterville Typographical Union, Local 643. The shop has been unionized since 1972.

“It creates consistency. When it comes to decisions about how things should be run in the company, there is an agreement between management and the union,” said Christie. “There’s a framework and a consistency that doesn’t allow personality to influence decisions — and I think that’s important in the workplace.”

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