AUGUSTA, Maine — Roughly 300 union members flooded the State House on Tuesday to urge legislators to oppose two so-called “right to work” bills.
In the morning, they met with legislators from their districts to talk about the bills. In the early afternoon, they held a press conference to discuss the issue.
“I think people are worried, but they’re ready to fight,” said Catherine Harper, a registered nurse from Southwest Harbor and president of the Maine State Nurses Association Local 982.
Maine is not 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. 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. Those costs are called “agency fees.”
That would change under right-to-work legislation proposed by several Republican legislators aimed at both private- and public-sector workplaces.
The bills, LD 788 and LD 309, have yet to have a public hearing, and they won’t get one for a while, said Sen. Christopher Rector, R-Thomaston, Senate chairman of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.
“We’ve got a budget to concentrate on,” said Rector.
Rector said he was keeping an open mind when it comes to the bills, and noted that there are two sides to the issue.
Harper said she was told by several legislators not to assume the bills wouldn’t pass. For the first time in decades, Republicans control the Legislature and the governor’s office.
Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, the ranking Democrat on Rector’s committee, said it was hard to say what sort of support the proposals had in the House.
“It’s a hard call. I think among most moderates, probably not much,” he said. “But you’ve got a variable with the freshman class.”
And the governor is a vocal supporter of right-to-work laws as well.
“The big issue for him is the personal choice,” said LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt.
Demeritt said the governor believes if workers want to join a union, they should be free to do so. Likewise, if they don’t want to join, they shouldn’t be forced to pay agency fees, he said.
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.
Unions fought for the 40-hour workweek, safe working conditions, benefits and other things that today are commonplace, said Joseph Mailey, a sheet metal worker and union member from Auburn.
“The only thing that protects that is the presence of organized labor,” he said.
Emery Deabay, a member of United Steel Workers Local 1188 in Bucksport and a board member of the Maine AFL-CIO, said his local has 300 members. There are no nonmembers who are paying agency fees, said Deabay. But he said if the the legislation passed he fears some union members would quit the labor organization to save money while retaining the protection.
That would harm the union financially, he said. “It also erodes our power.”
Having fewer members would give the unions less leverage with management at negotiation time, said Deabay.
Defenders of such “union security clauses” insist all workers who benefit from the terms of a collective bargaining agreement should help bear the costs of the union representation that negotiated those benefits.
After all, supporters say, unions are required by federal law to represent all workers — regardless of their status with the organization — when negotiating contracts and in employee grievance cases.
Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said he has heard from more and more Republicans questioning the need to pursue the legislation.
“This is going to hurt working people,” said Schlobohm. “It’s not going to do anything to help the economy.”
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.