April 26, 2018
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Students, workers gather in Orono to oppose budget cuts

By Jamison Cocklin, Special to the BDN

ORONO, Maine — A gray sky and mixed precipitation did little to discourage a group of workers, students and civil rights advocates from gathering Monday on the University of Maine campus to decry the spending cuts making their way through federal and state governments.

The “We Are One Rally For Human Dignity,” organized by the Brewer-based organization Food AND Medicine and the Eastern Maine Labor Council, was held at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King Memorial Plaza at UMaine. The event was held to coincide with the anniversary of King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., where he had come to defend the rights of sanitation workers.

The event, attended by nearly 100 people, featured numerous guest speakers, including retired state workers, the Northeast regional director for the AFL-CIO, and UMaine faculty members.

Those in attendance focused their dissatisfaction on a number of legislative proposals circulating in Augusta, including measures they said would undermine organized labor and affect the wages of public- and private-sector workers.

Speakers denounced proposals ranging from reforms to the state’s pension plan to legislation that would increase the hours minors could work while in school as an attack on the middle class and low-wage workers alike.

“Altogether these so-called workers’ rights bills take Maine in the wrong direction,” said Elizabeth Johns of the Maine Women’s Lobby as she addressed the crowd from a podium set up in the square. “We need to let our legislators know that we don’t want to go down that road.”

In recent months, as they struggled to plug budget shortfalls and cover pension liabilities, legislatures in several states have considered proposals that would dramatically affect public-sector labor unions and their workers.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-led state legislature effectively eliminated the collective bargaining rights of state workers. A county judge there recently barred the legislation from taking effect, but Republican lawmakers have threatened to follow through with its implementation, according to The Associated Press.

Those attending Monday’s rally in Orono took particular exception to Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed reforms to the state’s pension plan, which would require state employees to put an additional 2 percent of their paychecks into the pension system in addition to freezing and then capping cost-of-living adjustments for state retirees.

After addressing participants at the rally, retiree Loren Snow, who worked for the Maine Department of Transportation from 1979 to 2008, said he can barely survive on his current pension. He said despite having provided the state years of service, he struggles to  heat his home.

“Taxpayers aren’t going to save money if the state continues to take money from workers,” he said.  “We’ll be on state programs if things keep on at this rate and the taxpayers will still have to pay.”

Snow said the public should remember that state workers are members of the community and not a part of the state’s budget problems.

Mary Dolan of Old Town expressed her disdain over what she sees as public officials’ “scapegoating” of state workers.

“Public workers did not start the financial crisis that led us to our current budget problems,” Dolan said. “It was the private corporations that gambled away this country’s future, and the blame is being unnecessarily placed on state workers. It’s really unfortunate because it is dividing people, too.”

Many at Monday’s rally said they fear for the future of the country and the rights of all workers if the trend of targeting organized labor continues.

Jim Snow, Northeast regional director of the AFL-CIO, said about 1,000 similar rallies, including one in Augusta, were planned across the country Monday to coincide with the anniversary of King’s assassination. A larger rally of the same nature was scheduled to take place in Augusta during the afternoon.

“We need to protect Maine’s standard of living, as well as the country’s standard of living,” said Snow. “The proposals in many state legislatures will hurt the people, and today we are resisting.”

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