January 19, 2020
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Maine workers and employers deserve more attention

The 2012 elections are over. Maine voters have returned the Democrats to legislative majorities in both bodies. How will this affect Maine workers?

We have an opportunity to do better by those who make up the backbone of our economy by focusing policy proposals on outcomes that support and improve workers. The next Legislature should have a committee dedicated solely to labor.

Here is a bit of Maine legislative history. The Joint Standing Committee on Labor existed for 100 years before 2010, when the Republicans were elected to lead. The first action of the new Republican leadership two years ago was to eliminate the Labor Committee and broaden the charge of the Business, Research, and Economic Development committee to include labor policy. The rationale included, “By combining these two committees, GOP leadership seeks to address commerce, workforce, research and development issues within a more effective framework.”

The outcome was the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, a “supercommittee” of 13 legislators with a staggering workload. Policy issues ranged from uniform building codes to workers’ compensation reform to protecting heating oil consumers. Previously, the two committees dealing with these issues each met twice a week during the legislative session. The newly formed supercommittee met five days per week.

How did this change two years ago translate into job creation? The data indicate that Maine has lost jobs. We are the only New England state in the loss column.

In October, Garrett Martin with the Maine Center for Economic Policy wrote, “The September unemployment rate for Maine was 7.6 percent. Once again job growth in Maine is anemic at best. Maine continues to rank near the bottom of states in terms of job growth over the last year. While these numbers are preliminary, Maine’s job count at 595,800 nonfarm jobs is identical to what it was a year ago and highlights the need to pursue policies that will result in good jobs and a stronger economy now.”

Simultaneously, Gov. Paul LePage consistently has denigrated Maine workers since his election in 2010. Among his criticisms:

In April 2012 at a town hall meeting in Newport, he said, “The problem is, the middle management of the state is about as corrupt as you can be. Believe me, we’re trying every day to get them to go to work, but it’s hard.”

At the State Republican Convention in May, he said, “I am compassionate and committed to our children, our elderly and our disabled. But to all you able-bodied people out there: Get off the couch and get yourself a job!”

Earlier this month at York County Community College, he said, “If you want a good education, go to an academy. If you want a good education, go to a private school. If you can’t afford it, tough luck.”

The past two years have not been kind to Maine workers, whether we focus on rhetoric or employment outcomes. And before that, labor committees were stacked with a union advocate majority, sidelining employers’ perspectives. We have the opportunity to move forward with a refocus that can benefit workers and employers.

Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, will be elected as speaker of the House and Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, as president of the Senate in December. Each has been asked to reinstate the Joint Standing Committee on Labor for the 126th Legislature. Each has responded that he would need to hear a sound policy argument for making this change. We offer this for their consideration.

The 2012 performance measures of the Maine Economic Growth Council include 25 benchmarks which, when combined, help define our collective quality of life. Seven of 25 benchmarks relate directly to labor and workforce development: per capita personal income, employment, multiple job holding, higher degree attainment, on-the-job injuries and illnesses, gender income disparity and wellness and prevention

Of these, the only one that actually improved since 2011 was multiple job holding. Every other measure was either stagnant or has declined. The wellness and prevention benchmark was red flagged as “needs attention” because of its low national standing.

More than 25 percent of the benchmarks relate to labor and workforce development.

Shouldn’t the 126th Legislature have a policy committee dedicated to labor? Yes. These seven benchmarks will not receive adequate focus unless there is a joint standing committee dedicated to this work.

Republicans argued successfully in 2010 that isolating labor issues from management was counterproductive. We agree. We suggest establishing a Joint Standing Committee on Labor and Work Force Development, appointing members from both management and labor backgrounds. Diverse representation on the committee will provide the variety of perspectives necessary to generate policy improvements for workers and businesses.

Maine workers are the backbone of our economy. They deserve better. We have the opportunity to focus on supporting and improving our workforce. The broader economy won’t wait for us. Let’s embrace this opportunity to move Maine forward.

Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, and Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, both were re-elected recently to the Maine House of Representatives.

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