Proposals to make paying for union benefits in Maine voluntary will draw a sharp battle line between workers and employers. The ensuing debate will not be resolved easily.
Two proposals that will come before the Legislature would end the practice of deducting from employee paychecks a portion of union dues, even if the employee does not join the union. One bill, LD 309, would exempt public sector employees from having a fee subtracted from their paychecks. Those who fall under this category include teachers, police officers and full-time firefighters, those working for the university and community college systems and state employees. Three other proposals covering the private sector will be merged into one bill.
Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, sponsor of LD 309, is a former state employee, and his wife worked for the state for about 35 years. Seeing a mandatory deduction never sat well with him, he said. The argument for the mandatory deduction is that employees who work under union-negotiated contracts — with the pay and benefits that come with them — ought to contribute a fair portion of the cost of hammering out that contract.
But Rep. Winsor argues that unions ought to work to persuade nonmembers to join — perhaps by offering more services or by reaching out to nonmembers to learn what they want in new contracts. “I really do believe in collective bargaining,” he said, “but membership should be voluntary.”
He also asserts that unions have lost their way, failing to understand that their members are in partnership with their employers — to turn a profit in the private sector, and to provide quality services efficiently in the public sector.
On both counts, Rep. Winsor is correct.
But wading into what is always an uneasy truce between employers and unions is fraught with risk.
The effect unions have had on the American worker and workplace is often dismissed as ancient history. Without unions, Americans might still be working six-day weeks, with 9- or 10-hour workdays. They probably would not have benefits like vacations, coffee breaks, retirement savings accounts and health insurance.
And it was unions, along with social reformers, which fought for child labor laws and safe working conditions.
Of course, the role of unions has changed in the past 100 years. Instead of representing mostly blue-collar workers in manufacturing businesses, most union members work in the public sector.
In the private sector, sympathy lies with the struggling entrepreneur, not the worker seeking sick pay or a cost-of-living raise. Some of that is the fault of unions, which have advocated for and won concessions that sometimes weaken businesses.
The right to work debate may mark a turning point in how unions are understood and how they serve workers.