Maine state union warns LePage to play by the rules

Posted Oct. 17, 2011, at 6:34 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 18, 2011, at 1:24 p.m.
Gov. Paul LePage
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Gov. Paul LePage

AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s largest labor union is concerned that Gov. Paul LePage and his administration plan to subcontract out state projects and services without allowing affected union members a chance to bargain.

The Maine State Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union, delivered a stern letter to the state’s human resources director on Monday, asking for a temporary halt in any subcontracting.

“These actions would constitute changes in the terms and conditions of employment of unit members and thus trigger an obligation on the state’s behalf to provide the union with notice and the opportunity to bargain,” the letter reads.

The Maine State Employees Association represents more than 15,000 state workers, including highway and bridge workers, nurses, public safety officials and others. As of the end of last month, though, the union no longer has a valid contract with the state.

In years past, when the collective bargaining agreement expired, union members and the state allowed the contract to remain in place until a new deal was reached. LePage chose to terminate that contract.

Even without an agreement in place, the union still has rights granted by the Maine Labor Relations Board and members hope the governor acknowledges those rights.

“The rules say that the employer has to talk with the workers before contracting out work,” said Tony Gonzales, a member of MSEA-SEIU Local 1989 and a foreman with the Maine Department of Transportation. “We’re following the rules. The employer should follow the rules. If the employer is saying that contracting out will save money, then we would want to talk with them to make sure that the savings are real and that the impact on public services is also identified.”

Chris Quint, executive director of the MSEA-SEIU Local 1989, said he understands that the governor has gone on record in favor of privatizing certain services but laws still apply.

“We can’t stop the administration from subcontracting, but we can have a seat at the table,” he said. “Just simply contracting out doesn’t save money.”

Joyce Oreskovich, director of the state’s Bureau of Human Resources, said the governor and his department heads have every intention of complying with the law.

Shortly after he was inaugurated in January, Gov. LePage indicated his plan to contract out a lot of work performed by Maine Department of Transportation employees. Oreskovich said the state has not subcontracted anything substantial since the union contract was terminated.

Quint said Monday’s letter was not a response to any concrete action by the governor to subcontract out or privatize services.

“This is pre-emptive,” he said. “But we hear a lot of rumors about what might be done. The most recent, of course, is what the state plans to do with the Down East Correctional Facility.”

In June, the governor’s chief of staff, John McGough, wrote an op-ed criticizing the state union for adopting an inflexible bargaining position.

“For years many Maine taxpayers have not had salary increases, have had to accept cuts in benefits and experienced significant losses in their retirement accounts,” he wrote. “It is time to remember that the people of Maine work hard at their jobs to pay their taxes and they expect state management to cut unnecessary spending at every possible turn.”

He criticized the state union for seeking to maintain outdated telephone reimbursements, continued salary when state workers go to conferences and for sending money to its national union office.

Union members have defended their bargaining position.

“Maine’s highway and bridge workers, public health nurses, social workers and public safety workers are already working for hourly wages substantially lower than their private sector counterparts for comparable work,” Gonzales said. “We’re efficient as any work force can get. Before the administration starts handing out lucrative contracts for public work, they need to follow the process. It’s a transparent process that assures accountability, and we’re all for it.”

The letter sent Monday asks the state to “provide written assurance that the state is not engaged in any activities leading to the subcontracting of work customarily performed by unit members … Should the state take any affirmative steps to contract out bargaining unit work without giving the union notice and an opportunity to extent required by law, the union will take all appropriate action to avail itself of its legal rights.”

The state and the labor union are still in mediation to resolve the terminated contract. Quint said the union hopes for resolution in the next few weeks. Until then, Oreskovich said, the state and the union must maintain the status quo.

LePage and other Republican leaders have expressed interest in changing state law to make union membership dues voluntary, a change that union officials say would cripple them.

A bill to change union laws has been carried over to the next legislative session that begins in January.

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