Opponents of legislation dealing with union membership say procedural maneuvers launched Tuesday may signal a quiet death for the two bills.
Both bills deal with the so-called “right-to-work” issue — one for public employee unions, one for private sector labor unions.
The bills would seek to have Maine join the ranks of 22 other right-to-work states. Employees 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.
The bills were introduced early in the session — one in February, one in March — and sent to the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. But neither bill had a public hearing.
The deadline for committee work on bills passed last week. This week, under a joint House-Senate rule, the bills were taken back from the committee and taken up by the House. On Tuesday, the House allowed both bills, LD 309 and LD 788, to be indefinitely postponed on a motion by Rep. Philip Curtis, R-Madison, the majority leader.
“What we’re hearing from legislators and leadership in both parties is a growing sentiment there’s no interest in these bills, they’re going to be killed one way or another,” said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “I think they recognize that these bills are a distraction from the priorities at hand.”
Schlobohm said labor leaders were “cautiously optimistic” that the bills would be indefinitely postponed.
Speaker of the House Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said the two bills were set aside so they could be dealt with together.
“We don’t know what the timetable is for dealing with them, and frankly we don’t know yet how we’re going to deal with them,” said Nutting.
He said both bills were likely to be contentious, and the Republicans would meet in caucus to discuss the future of the proposals. Asked if the bills might die a quiet, procedural death, Nutting replied: “That certainly is an option. I have said from the very beginning that [right-to-work] wasn’t high on my list of things to do.”
Nutting said he didn’t know why the bills hadn’t had public hearings, but suggested that they were put off due to their contentious nature, while the committee focused on other, more pressing issues. Committee co-chairs Sen. Christopher Rector, R-Thomaston, and Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Rector, in past conversations, has said that legislative leadership was overseeing action on the bills.
One supporter of right-to-work has been Gov. Paul LePage.
At a February meeting of the National Governor’s Association, LePage referenced protests in Wisconsin over efforts at the time to end collective bargaining for state employees there.
In an interview with POLITICO, he said of the protesters, “once they start reading our budget they’re going to leave Wisconsin and come to Maine because we’re going after right-to-work.”
On Tuesday, however, his press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, said right-to-work was not one of LePage’s five priorities for the session. Those priorities, she said, were regulatory reform, pension reform, lowering energy costs, reforming health care and effecting tax relief.
She suggested that right-to-work “will undoubtedly come up next session.”
“It is an important issue, the governor still maintains everybody should have a choice to opt in or opt out as they choose,” said Bennett.
House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, said Democrats had been watching the bills closely for a public hearing when they came up on the House calendar Tuesday.
“To be honest with you, Democrats in the State House believe those bills need to die, whether it’s through the public hearing process or procedural motions on the floor, we believe the bills are bad for Maine,” said Cain. “If there’s an attempt to pass them, Democrats will fight back.”
However, she said, if the motion is to indefinitely postpone or kill the bills, Democrats will support it. She said she hasn’t had conversations with Republican leaders about the bills and their possible fates. She noted that they have been quite contentious subjects, right from the get-go.
“Maybe this falls under the category of ‘choose your battles.’ For me, this is about the end result,” said Cain.
The right-to-work issue has been contentious in other states. In New Hampshire, Democratic Gov. John Lynch has recently vetoed a House right-to-work bill; Republicans there are trying to get the votes together to override the veto.