AUGUSTA, Maine — A debate over organized labor and union dues roared back to life on Wednesday after Republican leaders appeared to reverse course and scheduled a late-session public hearing on a politically combustible “right-to-work” bill.
Just last week, two bills dealing with unions’ ability to collect mandatory fees from nonmembers appeared headed for a quiet death after the Legislature’s GOP leadership pulled the bills from the committee where they had been lingering untouched for months.
But rather than kill the controversial bills, as many observers expected, House Republicans voted Wednesday to send one measure dealing with state employee unions back to committee for a June 2 public hearing.
The parliamentary move on LD 309 sparked an angry backlash from Democrats and union leaders, who suggested that Republican lawmakers were changing direction at the request of the administration of Gov. Paul LePage.
They also who warned that pushing such a contentious issue with less than three weeks left in the session could have political ramifications, especially as the two sides seek to reach a compromise on sticking points within the $6.1 billion budget.
“I think this could have a profound impact on negotiations going forward and how we balance the budget,” said Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Union. “A lot of good will and good faith was lost today with the actions of the House.”
Republicans, however, accused Democrats of political grandstanding before they had even seen a rewritten and scaled-down bill that is expected to be released on Thursday. But they also said the issue of unions collecting fees from nonmembers should be aired.
“State employees were not included in the decision to take this money out of their paychecks and it is time that it has a hearing,” said Rep. Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle.
In Maine, no worker can be forced to join a union. But state law allows unions and employers to require that all workers who benefit from the union’s bargaining and representation services pay fees, regardless of whether they join. The argument behind such “fair share” requirements is that nonmembers reap the benefits of union negotiations.
As originally introduced, LD 309 would ensure that public sector unions only represent public employees who voluntarily join the union. A second bill that remains in limbo, LD 788, would have barred private unions from collecting fees from nonmembers.
More than 20 states have “right-to-work” laws similar to those sought by the two bills. But unions contend such measures are merely attempts to undercut organized labor.
Lance Dutson, spokesman for House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said the new version of LD 309 was still being written on Wednesday evening. But Dutson said Republicans are ready to have the discussion about whether it is fair to force nonunion members to pay fees.
The amendment, Dutson said, would essentially allow the issue of garnishment of wages to be “on the table” during contract negotiations, addressing a 2007 law change that allowed the state to deduct union fees from the paychecks of state employees who opt out of the union.
“From the Speaker’s perspective, he wants this to be part of the collective bargaining process,” Dutson said.
But Democrats are questioning why Nutting and Senate President Kevin Raye — both of whom have said the “right-to-work” bills were not high priorities for them — decided to hold a hearing with less than two weeks left in the session.
Rep. John Martin, an Eagle Lake Democrat and former longtime House Speaker, didn’t mince words about who he thought was behind the change. Martin said the LePage administration is attempting to undermine the state employee union.
“So by passing this bill, they would not need to sit at the table to negotiate ‘fair share’ and other issues,” Martin said on the House floor.
LePage has been a vocal supporter of “right-to-work” laws that prohibit unions from forcing nonmembers to pay fees. In February, he told journalists that the union-related protesters in Wisconsin would soon head to Maine “because we’re going after right-to-work.”
But last week, the governor told reporters that his top priority was the budget.
Earlier Wednesday, Martin fell just one vote short of killing the bill when the House voted 74-74 on his motion to “indefinitely postpone” the measure. Two Republicans joined Democrats in supporting Martin’s motion.
But several hours later, Republicans rallied and voted to send LD 309 to committee on a 74-71 vote.
Prior to the vote, Democrats railed against the move to send the issue back to committee and questioned why the Republican leadership had not held a public hearing on a bill that had sat in the committee since February.
“All of a sudden, nine working days before we have statutory adjournment, it has become a priority,” said Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay.
“This bill is a bad policy that has now taken a very circuitous route to go back to where it started in the first place with no clear reason why,” added Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the House minority leader.
But Republicans countered that this is not a new issue and that the public will have plenty of notice about the public hearing thanks to the media, Internet postings and interest groups.
“There has not been a public hearing to offer an opportunity for members of the public to express themselves on this issue,” said Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, the House assistant minority leader.