Keep state committee whole: Interests of union, non-union workers must be balanced

By Amy Volk and Ray Wallace, Special to the BDN
Posted Dec. 05, 2012, at 1:37 p.m.

Democrats, now back in control of the Maine Legislature, have begun talking about the changes they intend to make to state government. Some of the changes they propose may be good ideas, as Republicans could not change everything that needed to be changed in two short years. Others, however, appear ill-advised.

Reps. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, and Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, proposed one of the first ill-advised changes in their recent column, “ Maine workers and employers deserve more attention.” They called on the new Democratic leadership to split the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee back into two committees, with one focusing solely on labor and workforce development.

This would be a misguided step backward. Simply adding “and Workforce Development” to the name of the old Joint Standing Committee on Labor, as Hayes and Gilbert propose, is, as the saying goes, to put lipstick on a pig. They can call it whatever they want, but employers and nonunion workers will still be segregated into a separate area of legislative jurisdiction.

As we write, we are seeing firsthand how, in the jockeying for committee assignments for the new term, legislators wishing to be placed on the proposed labor committee generally favor unions over businesses. Conversely, the more pro-business legislators prefer to sit on a business committee should Democratic leadership split the two again.

Our experience in serving on the two-year-old Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development Committee, or LCRED, which brings unions and employers together, has been an extremely positive one. In the past, the labor committee may have pushed overly pro-union legislation, and the business committee may have erred on the side of management. LCRED fosters a process that results in more balanced legislation.

A good example is the recent establishment of a medical fee schedule, which had been promised by the Workers’ Compensation Board for 18 years and brought much-needed consistency and cost-containment to the system. Our committee insisted that unions and employers return to negotiations over and over until they could agree on the reform. As a result, injured workers were protected and, according to Michael Bourque of the Maine Employers’ Mutual Insurance Co., workers’ compensation insurance rates in Maine decreased 3.8 percent this year.

We had a lot of work on this committee, but there was a wonderful balance between workforce, management and economic development interests collaborating and thus reducing the risk of any one interest group flexing its muscle.

In their column, Hayes and Gilbert attempt to back up their criticism of the merged labor and business committee by citing the Maine Economic Growth Council’s worrisome March 2012 report. However, that report relied on numbers from 2009 and 2010 — before the committees were merged, before Republicans took power and well before any of the bills passed by the LCRED Committee took effect (some still haven’t). This is a tactic commonly employed by Democrats over the past two years — linking old data to criticize policies that are just now coming into play.

A more relevant figure comes from the Maine Department of Labor, which found that Maine gained 7,400 new private-sector jobs between June 2011 and June 2012. Another figure relevant to this discussion is $750,000. That’s the amount of money spent by a union-funded PAC to launch negative attacks on Republicans, helping to sweep Democrats like Hayes and Gilbert back into power.

In effect, unions spent more than $100 per private-sector job created under Republican control to oust Republicans from power. This is understandable, because for the first time, under the merged business and labor committee, union interests were balanced and not given free rein.

In the last session, for example, unions went before the business and labor committee to argue unsuccessfully that electricians shouldn’t be allowed to have more apprentices because new, younger electricians would compete with older union workers. If they had made their case before a committee solely concerned with labor, their argument would have fallen on far more sympathetic ears and the door would have been closed to many young people looking for a rewarding career opportunity.

Hayes and Gilbert conclude their column by writing that Maine workers deserve better. About that, we are in agreement. But it’s not as simple as the two Democratic lawmakers make it out to be. We need to focus on helping all workers, not just union members, and we do that by ensuring that the interests of private-sector workers, taxpayers, employers, the unemployed and union members are balanced in a single, united forum.

Reps. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, and Ray Wallace, R-Dexter, serve on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/12/05/opinion/keep-state-committee-whole-interests-of-union-non-union-workers-must-be-balanced/ printed on July 25, 2014