As long as workers are permitted to join together to negotiate compensation with employers, there will be an uneasy relationship. Laws dating back a century or more allow workers to bargain with employers collectively, but in the wake of this last recession, many of those laws are seen as impediments to economic growth. As the recession hurt state revenues, eliminating the collective bargaining rights of public employees was attractive to many conservatives.
Meanwhile, in a related issue, some legislators in Maine believe joining — or financially supporting — a union should be a freewill decision. Currently, if a state worker or public school teacher does not join the union, he or she still is assessed a fee in lieu of union dues. The logic behind the law that allows this is that the employee is benefiting from the union’s efforts.
The portion deducted from the nonunion member’s pay is computed to equal the union’s negotiation costs. This seems reasonable.
But it also seems reasonable that an employee should be able to work and not join the union without having to pay a portion of his or her wages to the union. The assessment, though significantly less than union dues, can be seen as punitive. It certainly is mandatory, leaving many nonunion member workers feeling their rights have been infringed upon.
The argument also can be made that some employees do not want to join unions on a matter of principle. They may object to the union’s political activities, or they may believe the union is not acting responsibly in its dealings with the employer. Shouldn’t they be able to opt out?
Is there any middle ground to be found on this issue, which lawmakers have put off until next year? What if employees who choose not to join the union agree to pursue their own deals with the employer for pay and benefits? If they are unable to land the same pay raises, shouldn’t that be incentive enough to have them join the union?
The larger issues around unions also deserve exploration. Some people assert that union demands have been the fatal blow to domestic manufacturing. Fifty years ago, some say, unions saw themselves as partners with business owners, working to ensure that employees got a fair deal, but also working to ensure profitability for the business. Is this still the case?
Or is the debate over the role of unions a red herring? Some believe that unions — both for public sector employees and for those working in the private sector — have been unfairly scapegoated. Without the leverage unions provide, won’t wages, benefits and working conditions deteriorate sharply?
Join us live at The Maine Debate on the Opinion page of bangordailynews.com between 10 a.m. and noon Tuesday. Or drop in sooner and stay later to discuss the challenging questions relating to unions.