AUGUSTA, Maine — Local 1989 of the Maine State Employees Association, the labor union that represents the majority of state employees, announced Friday that it has renewed a partnership with the Maine AFL-CIO with the goals, among other things, of expanding Medicaid in Maine and helping Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud win the 2014 gubernatorial election.
The Maine Republican Party and Gov. Paul LePage’s chief political strategist said the groups wield power and influence that is vastly out of scale with their actual representation among the labor force in Maine, but that they expect the merger to have little effect on the governor’s race. A spokeswoman for independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler questioned what the unions’ early support of Michaud would mean if he wins the election.
According to a statement from the MSEA, which previously had approximately 12,000 members, the two groups now represent more than 42,000 state workers, counting more than 150 local unions, many of them in the paper industry, manufacturing and at Bath Iron Works, represented by the Maine AFL-CIO.
The two state-level groups split in 2006, about 16 months after Local 1989’s parent organization, along with the Teamsters, split with the national AFL-CIO amid a push by the MSEA to increase membership and a dispute about how membership dues and affiliation fees were being spent.
MSEA President Ginette Rivard said in a written statement Friday that the partnership formalizes an already robust working relationship.
“We have worked closely together to defend the right of Maine workers to have a voice in their wages, benefits and working conditions,” said Rivard. “Together, we will move forward to address common legislative issues such as the urgent need to accept federal funds to expand health-care coverage and to elect a governor who represents Maine workers. We are united in supporting Congressman Mike Michaud as Maine’s next governor.”
AFL-CIO President Don Berry said the partnership would give the unions a stronger voice on issues that they have in common, namely workers’ rights.
“A stronger, more unified grassroots movement of working men and women is exactly what’s needed to raise wages and rebuild economic security for Maine families,” said Berry in a written statement. “Together we are stronger; it’s as simple as that. Together, working people have a stronger voice to challenge inequality and defend their rights on the job.”
Crystal Canney, a spokeswoman for Cutler, said it’s no surprise to see labor unions supporting a Democrat.
“Mike’s ability to get the unions to kiss and make up isn’t the real issue, but how beholden he will be to the special interests is,” Canney said. “It looks to us like it’s the same old way of doing business. Eliot is offering a new approach to all Maine people around jobs and the economy.”
Brent Littlefield, LePage’s senior political adviser, said Friday that simple math shows that the two unions represent a fraction of Maine workers and families.
“Their combined memberships make up less than 7 percent of currently employed Maine people and less than 4 percent of Maine citizens, yet they are trying to control all of state government to raise taxes and harm small businesses,” said Littlefield. “It’s critical that Maine people know that these groups try to control the entire state.”
Maine GOP Executive Director Jason Savage echoed Littlefield.
“This really proves that the unions have lost their moorings as to what their purpose is,” said Savage. “Their first order of business is electing Mike Michaud, who will raise taxes and hurt small businesses. It’s pretty clear that this is nothing more than a new political action committee funded by forcing Maine people to pay out of their paychecks. Instead of going out and always doing the work that represents the people on the front lines actually doing the work, they play politics and take money out of their paychecks.”
Berry said he doesn’t know where those accusations come from and that the unions have a long history of balancing workers’ rights with what’s best for industry.
“That’s pretty much what I’d expect out of them, but I don’t know where it comes from,” said Berry, who is a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “Anything we can do to help the industries, we do and the paper workers do the same thing. I think we’re very much pro-business. … We understand that both sides have to sit down and talk and that both sides have to work together to solve the problems. When solutions come from one side, they’re not going to cover everyone.”