Tens of thousands of Maine people go to work every day to keep our roads safe, to protect our health and our homes and to help our kids learn and grow. These snowplow drivers, nurses, child protective workers and other public workers are proud of the jobs they do and the high-quality services they provide, all while being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars. They are invaluable threads in the fabric of our communities — making Maine a better place for all of us to live, work, raise families and enjoy the outdoors.
Unfortunately, Gov. Paul LePage and his staff, along with their high-priced New York City lawyer, are attempting to paint a very different picture of the hard-working men and women of Maine who have chosen a career of public service. As part of his latest attack on the Maine workers who are in state contract negotiations, the governor and his Manhattan lawyer are continuing to create fear and division, rather than using the common sense and collaboration that Maine people are known for.
Like the circus flimflam man, the governor is hoping we will all be deluded into believing that state workers are not the same as the rest of us — that they are not our neighbors; that they don’t work in jobs that benefit all of us; and that they are not even taxpayers themselves. This alternate reality of “us vs. them” is out of step with Maine people and Maine values. We are not interested in paranoid half-truths. We simply want to do what we’ve always done, which is work together to get the job done.
So let’s start with the facts. First, if the governor were really serious about saving taxpayer dollars, he would send home his New York City lawyer, who’s been paid more in one month, $50,000, than many Maine workers make in a year. We don’t need high-priced lawyers from away. We need more collaboration and a lot less conflict from Gov. LePage.
Second, in response to the reasonable no-new-cost proposal put forward by state workers, the governor countered with a one-year extension that was far from status quo. In fact, Gov. LePage and his New York lawyer proposed to extend the contract one year only if state workers agreed to the elimination of one of the key safeguards in their contract, allowing for a 90-day extension if no agreement can be reached. This maintains workers’ ability to do their jobs without fear of reprisal from an angry boss — in this case, Gov. LePage.
Third, by continuing to nickel and dime state workers while slashing benefits even further, the governor’s approach will create more problems for the state in recruiting and retaining the best employees. He has proposed cutting wages for workers who protect our communities from dangerous criminals in our prison system and for workers who care for patients with severe mental health disorders in our state mental health institutions. How can we expect to attract new workers, especially young graduates who might want to stay in Maine, in this unstable and unhealthy work environment? It’s simply shortsighted.
When shared sacrifice has been called for, state workers have risen to the occasion. Two years ago, these dedicated workers agreed to a contract that contained no pay raises for two years. The Legislature increased workers’ share of health insurance costs, imposed 20 unpaid government shut down days and reduced wages. Yet despite a loss of between 6 percent and 17 percent of their income, state workers have continued to provide the people of Maine with high-quality, professional service. With the passage of the most recent state budget, state workers were again targeted with further cuts to health insurance, merit pay and their pension to fund the governor’s tax cuts for Maine’s wealthiest.
It’s time to end the tactics of fear and division. It’s time for the governor to stop attacking public service workers and tearing holes in the fabric of our communities. We’re all in this together. It’s time the governor started acting that way.
Chris Quint is executive director of the Maine State Employees Association-SEIU Local 1989.