October 17, 2018
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Do not conflate Maine’s public workers with the unions that represent them

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP

In his Aug. 1 radio address, Gov. Paul LePage aired his concern that Maine’s public sector unions are quick to antagonize his administration and slow to partner on solutions to help the Maine people.

He’s right.

The well-paid staff of public sector unions, especially the large ones, seem to believe their job is to celebrate conflict over cooperation, create headlines embarrassing management and disregard outcomes in favor of media attention.

This impulse was on display two years ago in the union’s opposition to Steve Webster, a respected police detective nominated by LePage to the state unemployment commission. Webster’s nomination was voted down along party lines after a confirmation hearing that turned into a media sideshow. His greatest sin? Belonging to the wrong union and never having been laid off himself.

More recently, the union blocked a deal to build a new pre-release center in Washington County. After suing LePage in a failed attempt to force him to increase staffing levels at the Downeast Correctional Facility, the union refused to even discuss the governor’s proposal for a lean, cost-effective pre-release center.

During the committee hearing where I presented the administration’s proposal, laid off workers were bused in to testify that the Legislature should oppose any deal. They got their wish. Despite clear opportunity for agreement, Downeast Correctional is now closed and no pre-release center has been established to replace it.

The dynamic that Maine’s public sector unions have cultivated does disservice to the men and women in state government. I have worked in the private, public and social sectors, and I have seen clear differences between those who choose to work in each. Generally, people who dedicate themselves to careers in state government are mission-driven. Many state employees could make more money working in similar roles in the private sector. This is one reason that retention of highly skilled state employees is such a challenge.

For example, IT professionals working for the state do so for significantly less money than they could earn for the same work in the private sector. Year-round employees at the Maine Department of Education often receive the same or less compensation than local teachers who work fewer months per year. At the Maine Department of Transportation, drivers are paid less than they if they did the same work as contractors (though they receive more generous benefits), contributing to a driver shortage.

Unions are most valuable when they are able to cultivate a relationship of mutual respect with management. Growing up in Gorham, my father was the elementary school physical education teacher and chief negotiator for the local teachers’ union. He took his role seriously and developed positive working relationships with the school committee and the administration so that he could advocate effectively for his colleagues. Open communication, honesty and trust are critical to relationship-building that leads to positive results.

When the permanent staff of the unions decide to emphasize conflict over collaboration, they perform a disservice to their members. This is the reason why many celebrated the recent Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which held public sector unions cannot compel employees to pay union dues against their will. The voluntary nature of union dues creates accountability between the union and its members; if union staff need resources from their members, they must deliver results that members value.

This is not to say that state employees are perfect. There are many problems with the state workforce, and the Maine people should demand more. The next governor of Maine must work to foster a problem-solving mindset (over a compliance-driven one), develop a culture that rewards innovation and results, build a talent pipeline, and invest in training managers. This is what world-class organizations do, and I am running for governor because I believe our government should be run as a highly effective organization committed to a common sense of purpose.

Maine’s public sector unions can come to the table to partner on solutions or they can continue to lob bombs in the media and conduct advocacy through protests. As Maine’s next governor, I would seek to build relationships with open communication, honesty and respect with Maine’s public employees. They deserve it.

Aaron Chadbourne is a Republican lawyer and entrepreneur running as a write-in candidate for governor. He served as senior policy adviser to Gov. Paul R. LePage from 2015-2018 and was a management consultant for McKinsey and Co. He graduated from Gorham High School in 2002, Harvard College in 2006, Harvard Business School & Harvard Law School in 2011.

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