AUGUSTA, Maine — Chants of “Kill the bill” and “Enough is enough” filled the State House on Thursday afternoon as hundreds of union members and supporters of organized labor rallied to oppose a controversial bill dealing with state employee unions.
A large crowd gathered Thursday afternoon as a legislative committee held a public hearing on a bill, LD 309, that would end the practice known as “fair share” in which the state deducts “service fees” similar to dues from the paychecks of state employees who choose not to join the union.
The bill has the strong support of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who is widely viewed to have been behind a late-session push to revive the measure after many believed it was dead.
So it was no surprise that LePage was the target of most of Thursday’s angry rhetoric.
“Instead of creating jobs, the governor is only creating more conflict,” said Mike Williams, a firefighter and district vice president of the Professional Firefighters of Maine.
“As politicians, we should be focused on creating jobs, not undermining the worker and making good-paying jobs harder to find and to keep,” said Larry Gilbert, mayor of Lewiston and the city’s former chief of police.
Addressing LePage, a Lewiston native whose office is located just a few steps from the rally, Gilbert added: “If it is about people before politics, these are the people you need to be supporting.”
LD 309 is actually the less-sweeping of two bills portrayed as “right-to-work” measures, although supporters say that label is not truly applicable because the bill only applies to public-sector unions.
A broader bill, LD 788, that would have stripped private-sector unions of their ability to require nonmembers to pay fees was killed in the House on Wednesday without a public hearing or debate.
Those fees are intended to cover the costs of bargaining and grievance representation provided by the union — services the unions claim benefit all employees, regardless of whether they join. Supporters of “right-to-work” bills argue that employees who opt out of the union should not be forced to pay a fee.
On Thursday, more than 500 people crammed into the State House’s Hall of Flags to decry LD 309 as an attempt to weaken public-sector unions and, by extension, unions in the private sector as well.
The hall echoed with chants such as “The workers united will never be defeated” and “61 percent,” a reference to the majority of voters who cast ballots for candidates other than LePage during last November’s gubernatorial election.
Some of the loudest applause went to the Rev. Mike Seavey, a Catholic priest from Portland who announced that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland opposed LD 309 on moral and ethical grounds.
Seavey further riled up the crowd with a reference to the LePage administration’s decision to hire a New York attorney — at a fee of $295 an hour — to help the state negotiate with the Maine State Employees Association, the largest state employees union.
“If the administration is going to hire a negotiator from New York City at exorbitant, Manhattan attorney rates, then our public employees have the ability and the right to organize themselves and present their contract expectations with mutual support,” Seavey said.
But Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for LePage, said LD 309 will not have any impact on the state employee unions’ ability to collectively bargain. Instead, the bill aims to repeal language approved by Democratic lawmakers and Gov. John Baldacci that requires the state to garnish the paychecks of nonunion state employees.
“What this bill really provides is paycheck protection,” Bennett said. “By no means does the governor want to inhibit anyone from joining a union … but it should not be a condition of employment for someone to pay a service fee, and right now that is the case.”