AUGUSTA, Maine — The latest effort to make Maine a right-to-work state stumbled Wednesday, when lawmakers on the Legislature’s Labor Committee narrowly rejected a bill that would have allowed employees who benefit from collective bargaining to opt out of paying unions for those services.
The committee voted 7-6 to recommend the full Legislature kill the bill. The six Democrats on the committee were joined by its lone independent in voting against the effort. The panel’s six Republicans supported it.
Those who follow labor issues may be as surprised by that result, because union members packed the halls of the State House on Wednesday to lobby lawmakers against the bill.
That is to say, they won’t be surprised at all.
“It’s just what we expected: a divided report along party lines,” Ron Greene, vice president of the Professional Firefighters of Maine, said. “I think they know how they’re going to vote when they get here.”
The bill — LD 489 by Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, a member of the Labor Committee — would have made Maine the first state in the Northeast to pass a right-to-work law. Such laws guarantee that employees at a unionized company will not have to join the union or pay fees for the union’s representation.
Currently in Maine, as in 24 other states, employees represented by a union must pay a fee for that representation, even if they opt against becoming members of the union.
Lockman and many Republicans believe that is an unfair requirement. Democrats and labor activists disagree, saying the “fair share payments” address the potential for free-riders, who would take all the benefits of union membership without paying any of the costs associated with it.
After the votes were tallied Wednesday, Lockman said he wasn’t surprised by the result, either, but he was disappointed. He noted that given the Democrats’ control of the House, the bill faced a “steep climb” in the Legislature.
Still, he said he was optimistic about the effort in the long term.
“At the end of the day, in most states that have right-to-work, it’s a process that takes five to 10 years, and we’ve moved the ball down the field,” he said. “On the public opinion side, I firmly believe we are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the people.”
The bill faces further votes in the House and Senate.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.