Public sector workers provide invaluable services to the State of Maine. They teach our children. They protect our communities. They plow our roads, process our government benefits, staff our courts and so much more.
It’s possible — and we’d argue, necessary — to recognize those critical contributions while also supporting the long-held prohibition on public employees going on strike here in Maine.
Because these services are so vital to our society — and their stoppage, even temporarily, would be potentially disruptive — opening the door to public sector strikes is unwise for the state.
While private workers’ right to strike has been recognized nationally since the 1930s, the same federal law that enshrined that right to strike, the National Labor Relations Act, exempted public employers. So, for decades, it has been up to states whether to let their public sector workers strike. Only about a dozen have done so.
Despite good intentions from lawmakers in Augusta and compelling testimony from public employees, it would be a mistake for Maine to join that list.
Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, has introduced LD 900, which would extend the right to strike to most public employees in Maine, with the exception of those whose jobs involve protecting public safety.
“It says that we want workers to be empowered to have equal power at the table and to allow each side to give and take,” Sylvester, a founding member of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America and co-chair of the Labor and Housing Committee, testified about his bill. For that is the way that bargaining works.”
Currently, the bill has an exemption for employees “whose duties include protecting public safety.” This carve-out essentially recognizes that, given the critical role public safety workers play in promoting Maine’s day-to-day general welfare, having them strike would be unacceptably detrimental to our communities. We have a hard time seeing why that principal shouldn’t continue to apply to other public sector workers engaged in education, public health and other necessary services that hold society together.
In the private sector, a strike may cause customers to go elsewhere and decrease company profits. In the public sector, the customers are citizens with no other options and the profit to be had is public good. A disabled Mainer can’t go to another state to access services if workers at the Department of Health and Human Services are on strike. A family can’t simply send their kids to a different public elementary school for days or weeks if teachers decide to withhold their labor.
University of Maine System Chancellor James Page testified that a strike could affect students’ ability to graduate on time and their career opportunities.
“If we fail to provide these programs and services, we have violated the trust that our students, their families, and all Maine taxpayers have placed in our public higher education system,” Page said.
That’s just one example of how a public employee strike could undermine the government’s fundamental responsibility to provide reliable services. Expanding the right to strike to the public sector could also become a barrier between employees and the people they serve.
“It certainly won’t help get budgets passed in communities where citizens already support their schools at the ballot box,” testified Steven Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association. “It will also break the most important bonds teachers have in their communities, and that is with the children in their classrooms.”
Sylvester pushed back against the general notion that a right to strike might put teacher and student interests at odds, saying in an interview with the BDN that he’s “pretty sure our teachers are going to have their kids in mind when they bargain.”
We don’t doubt Sylvester’s assessment, and share his trust in the motives of public employees and their willingness to negotiate in good faith. But we see wisdom in the longstanding difference between public and private employee rights.
“Employees’ rights in the public and private sector are fundamentally different, and for good reason,” testified Adam Crepeau of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. “Public sector employees need to be held to a different standard because they are employed to maintain the general welfare of Maine citizens. In contrast, private sector employees are employed to increase production and profits. The difference is stark, and the laws governing labor relations should remain separate for that reason.”
We agree, just as we agree that public employees in Maine deserve celebration and fair compensation for their work. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.