AUGUSTA, Maine — A drawn-out battle between the LePage administration and one of the state’s biggest labor unions is headed to court.
The director of Maine’s Labor Relations Board this week denied a request from Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to dismiss a complaint filed by the Maine State Employees Association workers, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union.
In a seven-page order, Mark Ayotte rejected all but one element of the union complaint, which was filed last fall.
However, Ayotte ultimately ruled that the LePage administration must stand trial before the board on charges that it negotiated in bad faith and interfered with the rights of MSEA workers.
“From the beginning, the LePage administration has been insisting that Maine’s public workers accept a laundry list of deep concessions,” said Scott Austin, vice president of the union and an environmental specialist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. “The administration has made no serious attempt to reach a negotiated agreement, as is required by Maine law. That’s why we went to the labor board late last year. We’re pleased that our complaint has been deemed sufficient to merit a trial.”
A press release from the governor’s office focused on the board’s rejection of most of the points made in the union’s complaint, including:
• That the state’s actions, even as alleged, did not meet the required elements of a case of unlawful discrimination.
• That the governor circumvented the bargaining process through legislation.
• That private statements allegedly made by LePage not in his official capacity as governor cannot be considered by the Maine Labor Relations Board.
• That allegations related to the hiring of a bargaining consultant must be stricken because the governor has the right to select his collective bargaining representatives.
A number of portions of the union’s complaint were dismissed, but allegations that the LePage administration failed to negotiate in good faith were deemed sufficient in merit for the labor board to hold a trial.
“I have concluded that the [union’s] complaint states claims upon which relief may be granted by the Board for [the LePage administration’s] violation of the duty to negotiate in good faith and a derivative unlawful interference, restraint or coercion charge,” Ayotte wrote in his order.
Julie Armstrong, counsel in the Office of Employee Relations, will represent the state at the labor board trial and said she expects to prove that the state bargained in good faith.
“This case appears to be an expression of MSEA’s frustration that the voters of Maine elected a governor who has given priority to restoring fiscal health to the State of Maine, a priority it appears MSEA may not share,” Armstrong said in a statement. “In furtherance of this goal, it is not only lawful but also appropriate for the governor to seek concessions from the union and take a tough position at the bargaining table.”
The MSEA union represents workers such as plow drivers, public health nurses, environmental protection workers and public safety workers. It first began negotiating with the LePage administration on a new collective bargaining agreement last April, but a deal still has not been struck.
LePage has not kept hidden his feelings about the employees association and unions in general. He has pledged to back right-to-work legislation that union officials have said would cripple them.
A formal complaint by the union was filed last fall, shortly after the LePage administration rejected the union’s latest contract proposal.
“We expected the governor to be tough, but we think he’s crossed the line. The law allows people to negotiate but it doesn’t allow for one party to go in with the intent of not reaching an agreement and for remaining bent on destroying the process,” union attorney Tim Belcher said last fall.
The governor’s office immediately responded by calling the complaint a 21-page press release filled with inaccuracies.
A date for the labor board trial was not set as of Thursday.