POLL QUESTION

Maine labor leaders call 2011 ‘best of times, worst of times’

Posted Sept. 04, 2011, at 8:08 p.m.

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Poll Question

When Republicans took over the State House a year ago, organized labor in Maine was understandably nervous.

In particular, the new governor, Paul LePage, had made it clear on the campaign trail that his ideology and priorities didn’t exactly align with those of unions — and labor leaders expected the worst in the 2011 legislative session.

“I think he lived up to all of those expectations,” said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, which has about 30,000 members statewide.

Legislation seen as anti-union was filed, including the highly contentious “right-to-work” bills that would take away unions’ rights to collect fees from nonmembers who benefit from representation. Another bill sought to take away the right to organize at certain large farming operations. One expanded the hours that youth could work.

Some, such as the youth working bill, were successful. Others, such as the right-to-work bill aimed at private sector unions, were shot down. Still others will be back — the right-to-work bill aimed at public sector unions will be debated again in the 2012 Legislature.

“These aren’t constructive proposals that are going to create more jobs, lead to more productivity, jumpstart our economy,” Schlobohm said.

And there were conflicts that had nothing to do with legislation. LePage’s decision to take down a mural depicting scenes from Maine’s labor history infuriated the unions and made national headlines. Deep budget cuts hit pensions of retired state workers.

Schlobohm and Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, which has about 10,000 members, said their organizations were challenged, but also galvanized.

“I think it’s been a bit of a ‘best of times, worst of times’ moment for us,” said Schlobohm. “There was a flurry of anti-worker attacks, efforts to undermine working people and organizations. On the other hand, we had an incredible response. We’ve had our membership more active, more engaged than it’s been in the last decade.”

Quint said a “new breed” of legislators came into power, “being led by Gov. LePage.” Their bills, which labor saw as anti-worker, anti-union, were pushed under a pro-business agenda, said Quint. To respond, he said, labor leaders met weekly from November until the present, sometimes multiple times a week. Unions held some 40 or 50 district meetings with legislators, with 50 to 200 workers showing up, he said.

Those new legislators and the governor had momentum going into the session, but the most serious bills were defeated, he noted.

“That didn’t just happen — that happened because workers and labor got together to make sure there were not the votes to pass those bills,” said Quint. “They were not organized, and we were,” said Quint, “and that’s really what it comes down to.”

Schlobohm said the AFL-CIO is seeking to keep moving forward with some new initiatives. The union is making a push to identify members who want to run for office at local and state levels and to support them. And it’s also looking into a new organizing push across the state.

“Internally, we feel a real sense of momentum, of increased activity, that we want to capitalize on,” said Schlobohm.

Looking forward, Quint said, the right-to-work bill aimed at public employee unions will be coming back in 2012.

“It’s going to be a battle, they’re going to push this,” said Quint. “I really find it hard to believe they’re going to gain any new votes from moderate Republicans and any Democrats in an election year.

“We’re going to continue to face these as long as this governor’s in office.”

A committee is working now on a proposal to revamp the workers’ compensation system — with legislation to be introduced for the next session. Schlobohm termed it a “very, very dramatic” overhaul that he suggested would repeal or amend “scores of existing protections.”

Sen. Christopher Rector, R-Thomaston, the co-chairman of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development committee, said he thought the reform of workers’ comp was needed.

“I think there will be comp reform, but I think that will be positive for both employers and employees,” said Rector.

The committee working on the reform is working on a fee schedule and establishing costs for medical procedures, something Rector said has eluded policymakers for 19 years.

“Any place we can save money, not just for the employer, ultimately means they can pay higher wages, expand, hire more people,” said Rector.

The formation of the committee of which Rector is co-chairman was another big issue for labor in the last legislative session. Previously, there had been two committees, one dealing with labor, the other with business, research and economic development. Republican leaders decided to combine the two — causing widespread consternation amongst labor leaders.

Schlobohm said labor leaders continued to believe “working people would be best served by an independent, free-standing Labor Committee.”

But he said of the new combined committee, “I think it was a respectful, smart, engaged committee that I think did a lot of respectable work this session.”

Rector, looking back, said he thought the committee had a successful year despite the rocky road leading up to its formation.

“I think the balance of labor and employer views and the sharing of those views in a more holistic way was beneficial to the legislative process,” said Rector. “[Labor and business] like to look at each other as enemies sometimes, but I think they realize that ultimately the success of one group will be the success of the other.”

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