AUGUSTA, Maine — More than 300 union advocates gathered at the State House on Saturday to send the message that even the worst economic circumstances shouldn’t be solved on the backs of public employees.
For some participants, the purpose of the rally in Augusta was to show solidarity with union revolts in states such as Wisconsin, where thousands of people have besieged the state Capitol to decry a budget proposal they see as anti-union. For others in Augusta, the purpose of the event was to remind Gov. Paul LePage, who has proposed a biennial budget package that finds more than $500 million in savings from state workers and retirees, that what’s happening in Wisconsin could happen here.
The Legislature’s Appropriation and Financial Affairs Committee will begin hearings on LePage’s budget Wednesday, and union workers are already gearing up to have their voices heard.
“We need to tell our own governor that when he comes to take our union rights away, we will not sit down!” yelled Buffy Morrissette of Poland, who said she is a frequenter of pro-union rallies and visited Madison, Wis., this week to participate in the protests there.
LePage, who was in Washington, D.C., on Saturday meeting with the National Governors Association, said in his weekly radio address Saturday that his budget proposal spreads the financial pain to all corners of state government, not just state workers’ paychecks. Regardless, he said, he expects strong pushback.
“It has gotten ugly in Wisconsin and it looks like the spectacle is headed here,” he said. “The average Maine worker will receive a boost in next year’s take-home pay of 2 percent because we eliminate the shutdown days [proposed by former Gov. John Baldacci and enacted by the 125th Legislature]. If we promised the same to most hardworking private-sector employees, they would take to the streets in celebration rather than protest.”
LePage went on to say that public employees should not be forced to join a union as a condition of employment, a reference to his proposal to eliminate a Baldacci-era provision that requires state workers to contribute financially to the unions.
LePage also proposes that retired state workers forgo cost-of-living raises and pay a portion of their health insurance premiums. Current workers are asked to contribute an additional 2 percent toward their retirement.
That doesn’t sit well with some, such as Emery Deabay, a union official who works at the Verso paper mill in Bucksport.
“[Gov. LePage] picked the wrong time, the wrong issues and the wrong state,” said Deabay to a chorus of cheers.
Not far away, approximately 50 counterprotesters were outnumbered but no less passionate. Breaking out at times in a chant of “SEIU, we’re paying for you” in reference to the largest state employees union bloc, many among the group said they were part of the Tea Party Patriots. They voiced a range of suggestions for putting the state’s finances in order.
Hayes Gahagan of Presque Isle, a former state senator in the 107th Legislature, said he believes unions’ collective bargaining rights are inappropriate and should be illegal for taxpayer-funded employees. Though that issue is at the core of the demonstrations in Wisconsin, there is at present no proposal to eliminate collective bargaining for state employees in Maine.
“Collective bargaining in the public sector is eventually going to affect public services,” he said. “That is not what government is supposed to be all about.”
Ken and Rick Hanson, farmers from Plymouth, put it in simpler terms.
“I’m here to stand against the socialists,” said Ken Hanson, referring to the union-friendly rally. “What we have in Maine is just going to end. We can’t afford it anymore, and we can’t keep going the way we’re going.”
Elsewhere in New England, participants in Vermont and New Hampshire labor rallies said Saturday the existence of unions benefits the middle class.
Bill Townsend, a 66-year-old manager from Portsmouth, N.H., said a rally in his home city shows that not everyone agrees with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to strip collective bargaining rights from most public workers.
“I feel the Wisconsin governor is totally wrong,” said Townsend. “If we eliminate collective bargaining, we eliminate the major reason for unions to exist.”
Thirty-nine-year-old Hampton, N.H., firefighter Walt Madore said he came because he fears the attacks on unions will spread.
“If it happens in one place, it won’t be long before legislators in other places will get the same idea,” he said.
Organizers estimated several hundred people attended the rally sponsored by Seacoast for Change.
At a rally at the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier, organizers had to shovel 7 inches of snow from the steps before the event.
About 200 people, including many Wisconsin transplants, chanted, carried signs, sang Woody Guthrie tunes and heard speeches decrying Walker’s attempt to reduce the bargaining powers of his state’s public employees’ unions.
The gathering, convened by local members of MoveOn.org., had encouraged participants to wear white and cardinal red, the colors of the University of Wisconsin, and many did. Some of the posters included drawings of Bucky Badger.
“We Support the Wisconsin Delegates,” read one poster, a reference to the Democratic state senators of Wisconsin who are camping out in Illinois to deprive Walker of the quorum he needs for a vote on the union legislation.
“Stop the Attack on Wisconsin Families!” read another poster.
“This is not about balancing the budget; it is about disenfranchising working people,” said Lisa Jablow, a teacher at Johnson State College, who was wearing a cheesehead.
In Blue Hill on Saturday, a small group of people also turned out to show support for the Wisconsin demonstrators.
The Maine Legislature’s Appropriations Committee is scheduled to begin hearings on the 2013-2014 biennial budget on Wednesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.