Lawmakers delay action on union fees bill

Posted April 04, 2012, at 3:42 p.m.
Last modified April 05, 2012, at 5:53 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The dozens of union representatives who gathered before the Legislature’s Labor Committee to hear debate Wednesday on a controversial labor bill left feeling confused.

Without debate, Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, the co-chair of the committee, tabled LD 309, a bill that would eliminate the state’s requirement to collect union fees from nonunion public-sector workers.

“What just happened?” one audience member asked.

Rector explained it this way: LD 309 was one of several bills that needed to be dealt with by his committee as the session winds down. “I think we are not united on any particular side, so I think we chose to just leave it,” he said, explaining why the committee avoided a vote. “It’s late in the session.”

But that doesn’t mean the bill is dead. It still could be revived if leaders in the Legislature opt to pull it out of the committee without a recommendation.

“It can be taken by the presiding officers directly to the floor without a committee report,” Rector said.

Jim Cyr, spokesman for House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said he expects that to happen, but only if the committee does not report out the bill. That could still technically happen, he said.

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he expects leaders to ensure that LD 309 has a debate.

“I think we’ll have the fight upstairs,” he said. “The governor will just not give it up.”

Jackson said he’s convinced Gov. Paul LePage, who strongly supports the measure, lobbied to ensure a debate on LD 309.

“Obviously, we were hopeful that this would be brought back,” Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said after Wednesday’s committee action. “The governor doesn’t believe the state should be forced to garnish wages from nonunion employees.”

State employees are not forced to join a union. However, if they benefit from union negotiations on contracts and in labor disputes, they must pay their “fair share” in fees that are automatically deducted from paychecks. Those fees, typically, are significantly less than standard union dues.

LD 309 would make payment of those service fees voluntary for approximately 2,500 nonunion state employees.

Wednesday’s action, or lack of action, happened in front of dozens of labor representatives who gathered at the State House to oppose the bill, which was carried over from the last session because it didn’t have support. During the same session, the Senate killed a similar proposal, called “right to work,” that deals with private-sector workers.

It appears as though LD 309 still does not have much support — given that the Labor Committee avoided a vote.

Many opponents of the bill gathered at a State House event before Wednesday’s committee meeting to speak out against it.

“Where are the governor’s priorities?” said Mike Williams, a South Portland firefighter. “LD 309 won’t create more jobs, make workers more productive, or grow our economy; it just creates more conflict by striking at the rights of all workers. And that’s not good for any of us.

“LD 309 is another divisive and extreme proposal from Gov. LePage that is out of step with Maine values.”

Father Mike Seavey of the Catholic Diocese of Portland also spoke.

“All workplaces need to be places of morality and justice, where everyone contributes to and draws from the common good,” he said. “For workers to exercise these responsibilities, the right to organize and bargain collectively is essential. These rights are also basic human rights.”

Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics.

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