Controversial ‘fair share’ labor bill resurrected

Posted April 03, 2012, at 3:03 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Labor Committee has scheduled a last-minute work session for Wednesday on a controversial bill that has been dormant for the entire second session.

LD 309, known as the “fair share” bill, would eliminate the state’s requirement to collect union fees from nonunion public-sector workers.

It has strong support from Gov. Paul LePage but drew significant opposition from unions last session before being tabled by the Legislature. During the same session, the Senate killed a similar proposal, called “right to work,” that deals with private-sector workers.

Union representatives are prepared for another battle this week, although there isn’t much time for the bill to be debated before the session ends. Still, the debate almost certainly will drive another wedge between Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the final days.

State employees are not forced to join a union. However, if they benefit from union negotiations on contracts and in labor disputes, they must pay their “fair share” in fees that are automatically deducted from paychecks. Those fees, typically, are significantly less than standard union dues.

LD 309 would make payment of those service fees voluntary for approximately 2,500 nonunion state employees.

The bill has been sitting on the Labor Committee’s desk all session, but members have avoided it until now. Last week, the Republican leaders of the Labor Committee, Sen. Chris Rector of Thomaston and Rep. Kerri Prescott of Topsham, said they were waiting for GOP leadership to advise them on how to proceed with LD 309.

On Tuesday, they added it to the committee schedule for Wednesday.

The new pressure likely is coming from the governor’s office to pass the bill, but it’s not clear if there is enough support, particularly in an election year.

The LePage administration has not hidden its disdain for organized labor. At the moment, the governor is embroiled in a 12-round battle with the Maine State Employees Association over its failure to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement.

Democrats have long enjoyed support from labor unions, both here in Maine and across the country. The bill is likely to face unanimous opposition from House and Senate Democrats and, if it passes, the minority party would almost certain use that as an issue to run on in November.

Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics.

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