Right-to-work, labor advocates clash at public hearing

Posted April 01, 2013, at 4:38 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Organized labor advocates and their opponents clashed Monday at a sometimes heated public hearing over a bill that would make Maine a “right-to-work” state by allowing an employee to work at a unionized private-sector business without having to support the union financially as a condition of employment.

Proponents characterized the measure as a needed policy change that would set Maine apart from every other New England state, making it more economically competitive and attractive to business owners.

Opponents called the right-to-work legislation “union-busting” and said it would ultimately depress wages and make personnel matters unwieldy for employers who would have to strike different arrangements with different employees depending on union membership.

“Workers should not be coerced into paying for services they don’t want and didn’t ask for,” Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst, who sponsored the right-to-work legislation, LD 831, told legislators on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

The public hearing, which lasted about four hours, also dealt with another bill sponsored by Lockman, LD 786, which would repeal the law allowing public employee unions to deduct the equivalent of union dues from the paychecks of public-sector workers who choose not to join the union.

The bills are similar to two that were introduced by Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, during the last legislative session but didn’t pass. While those bills died in a Republican-controlled Legislature, Lockman said he was inspired to propose the bills again in a Democratic-led Legislature where they’re less likely to pass.

“The political and economic landscape has changed dramatically in the past two years,” Lockman said, citing Indiana and Michigan, which last year became the 23rd and 24th right-to-work states, respectively, and the first in the manufacturing-heavy rust belt.

“The right-to-work states are emerging from the recession much faster than states with compulsory unionism, and they’re doing it with good-paying jobs,” Lockman said. “Maine needs to get on the right side of this economic renaissance.”

But representatives from unions said the legislation simply masks efforts to undermine unions’ strength and interfere with their ability to bargain on behalf of all employees.

“We have a duty to bargain in good faith,” said Timothy Belcher, general counsel for the Maine State Employees’ Association. “We have the duty of fair representation toward those employees [who aren’t union members], and we treat that very seriously.”

Currently under Maine law, workers don’t have to belong to a union as a condition of employment. However, employers and unions are allowed to require that all workers covered by a union contract — union members and nonmembers — share in the costs of representation. LD 831 would outlaw that requirement and make imposing it a Class D crime.

LD 786, the other measure that came up for a hearing Monday, would repeal the “ fair share provision” in state law that lets public employee unions deduct dues from the paychecks of nonunion-member public sector workers. The bill also would require public employee unions recertify annually — through employee votes — as the collective bargaining agent for each public employee unit.

Lockman said he proposed the measure on behalf of “the disenfranchised minority of state workers who have a union that won’t take care of them,” but to whom they’re forced to pay dues. Those dues, he noted, are collected by the state through a payroll deduction.

“This fat revenue goes into bankrolling the campaigns of politicians who are bought and paid for before they even arrive at the State House,” he said. “LD 786 will clean up this mess. Compulsory unionism is a relic of a bygone era. It’s time to get on the right side of history.”

Belcher, the MSEA’s counsel, said the state employees’ union uses only member-paid dues for political purposes. The MSEA has nearly 9,000 regular members and receives fees from nearly 2,700 workers who don’t belong to the union, the union told the Bangor Daily News in February.

Jim Mackie of AFSCME Council 93, which represents corrections and mental health workers in Maine, said repealing the fair share provision could lead to more expensive legal battles for the state.

“I can’t imagine the lawsuits the state and employers would have without the unions,” he said. “Discharge cases would no longer be resolved through an arbitration and grievance process. They would be resolved through the court system.”

Monday’s hearing was dominated by claims from right-to-work proponents that economic, job and population growth in right-to-work states has exceeded growth in other states. Proponents countered that wages are generally lower in right-to-work states and that a number of right-to-work states still rank high on lists of states with high poverty rates and low GDP.

The Wall Street Journal reported in December that private sector employment has grown more quickly in right-to-work states than elsewhere — 4.9 percent compared with 3.9 percent respectively over the past three years. The newspaper also reported average wages were lower in right-to-work states, but that they were the same or greater as wages elsewhere when economists factored in the cost of living.

Gov. Paul LePage supports Lockman’s right-to-work legislation. His senior economic adviser, John Butera, said right-to-work legislation is “one piece of the puzzle” to attracting investment in Maine.

“I spent nine years as a site location consultant. The reality is, I’ve sat in corporate boardrooms and was told point blank by CEOs that they would not expand in a state that was not right-to-work,” he said. “I continually found myself in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas.”

That comment sparked a rebuke from independent Rep. James Campbell of Newfield that Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, the committee chairman, called “out of line.”

“If all this stuff is so great in all the states you mentioned, why didn’t you just stay there?” Campbell asked Butera.

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