For two years, the Maine State Employees Association and the LePage administration tried to agree on how much to pay certain state workers and what benefits to provide. On July 30, the state employees union posted on its website that its members had, finally, ratified a contract. After more than 45 negotiation and mediation meetings, where union members and state negotiators argued their cases during regular work time, what changed?
The approximately 10,000 workers will see an across-the-board salary increase of 1 percent in September and another 1 percent increase in July of 2014. In addition, eligible workers will receive merit pay increases. This is far from a rousing success for employees, who haven’t had raises in more than four years. The cost-of-living increase for Social Security benefits was 1.7 percent in 2013, for comparison.
LePage, meanwhile, said in a release he was recognizing “the commitment and dedication” of employees by providing for the wage and merit increases. This, after the administration fought the union over raises and proposed in its biennial budget to leave in place the pay freezes initiated by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci in 2009.
The contract is no strong achievement for LePage, either. He touted a provision that eliminates workers’ phone allowances for both cellphones and landlines, requiring them to choose one phone bill to reimburse (as long as they have cell reception at home). But the union says it agreed to this logical adjustment in 2011. Another provision, to eliminate state-paid leave for union members to attend their annual convention, is a concession on the union’s part, but it’s a relatively minor one.
Both the union and LePage leaned on a bit of rhetoric to bolster their respective views of the final agreement. The MSEA was able to get a signed contract because it “stood together and fought back against an administration that was determined to cut benefits, eliminate workers’ rights and destroy our union,” it wrote in an update online. LePage, on the other hand, argued that he “stood firm and did not waiver when it came to removing excessive and unnecessary costs.”
The truth, of course, is in the middle, as was the solution. If only the two sides had reached it earlier, the days spent with lawyers in mediation could have been spent instead on employment duties. No one benefits when it takes years to reach a contract agreement. Morale suffers. Time is wasted. Money is spent ineffectively.
Depending on who is governor in 2015, the union and LePage may have to negotiate again. The public should watch to see if the two sides learned from this round how to avoid another standoff. Will they negotiate with less antagonism and more good faith? The union says it proposed many months ago the contract that was ultimately ratified. The LePage administration says it had to defend itself against multiple complaints the union filed with the Maine Labor Relations Board.
Certainly, for what workers and LePage gained and lost in the end, it wasn’t worth two years of bargaining or four complaints filed with the labor relations board. The contract is fair. It brings peace. But it can’t be called a victory for either side.