AUGUSTA, Maine — Testimony on a handful of bills that proponents call right-to-work legislation lasted hours on Monday in the State House, but Gov. Paul LePage — perhaps the effort’s loudest cheerleader — is pessimistic about their chance for success.

In an interview on WVOM’s George Hale Ric Tyler Show, LePage said he didn’t “hold a whole lot of hope” that lawmakers would pass the bills, which would prevent unions from collecting representation fees from employees covered by collective bargaining agreements who chose not to join the unions.

A LePage-backed effort to establish Maine as a right-to-work state failed during the Republican-controlled 125th Legislature. Now, with Democrats in control of the House, the prospect faces even longer odds. The governor said he wasn’t confident his allies in the Legislature had the nerve to win the day.

“We’re not going to fight any less than we did last time, but in order to win battles, you need to have courage, and I’m not seeing it,” LePage said.

In Maine, as in 24 other states, employees who benefit from collective bargaining can be required to pay “fair share” fees to the union that represents them, even if they choose not to become dues-paying members of the union.

Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, is the sponsor of LD 489, one of the right-to-work bills before the Legislature this year. He told the Labor Committee on Monday that it’s wrong to force anyone to financially support an organization regardless of whether they want to.

“The underlying principle is personal freedom and individual rights,” he said. “Simply put, workers should not be forced to pay for something they don’t want and didn’t ask for.”

Opponents, however, say the moves are little more than an effort by conservatives to weaken unions, which traditionally use their financial and grassroots muscle to back Democratic candidates and causes.

Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said compulsory representation fees are necessary and fair. Federal law requires unions to represent all employees, members and nonmembers alike, he said, and the representation fees — which cover the cost of negotiating wages and benefits, and the grievance-and-arbitration process — ensure no one is taking a free ride.

Schlobohm said right-to-work laws are designed to hinder unions’ ability to operate effectively. He said they are akin to letting residents access municipal services such as police, fire protection and public schools while making taxes optional.

“We know what would happen to our towns” in such a scenario, he said. “They would be drained of resources and would become less and less functional. That’s the goal of these kinds of bills.”

Supporters of the right-to-work bills include some in the business community, such as Peter DelGreco, CEO of Maine & Company, a development consulting firm. In testimony provided to the Labor Committee, DelGreco wrote that more businesses would consider relocating or expanding in Maine if it were a right-to-work state.

Adopting the law would be especially powerful because it would make Maine the only right-to-work state in the Northeast, he said.

“Passing right-to-work legislation will present Maine with an opportunity to stand out in the minds of people looking at the Northeast and its dense population,” he wrote. “It will give us an opportunity to lead in a trend that is rapidly heading our way.”

That argument didn’t fly with Democrats on the committee, who said energy costs, available workforce, transportation, taxes and other factors all play a role in business decisions. They expressed doubts that right-to-work would be any kind of magic bullet for business attraction, development and retention in Maine.

“I’m trying to understand how union members paying their dues impedes business in any way,” said Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford.

Lockman’s bill and others face further action in the Labor Committee and, ultimately, in the House and Senate.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...