AUGUSTA — The legal counsel for Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday that a controversial bill that would change the state's ability to collect fees from nonunion, public-sector workers would bring so-called "fair share" back to the negotiating table in collective-bargaining talks.
But labor advocates say the bill, LD 309, would tilt the scales against the Maine State Employees Association and other public-sector unions while repealing 50 years of settled federal and state labor laws.
Both sides presented their cases to the Legislature's Labor Committee during a public hearing that went well into the night. The hearing was initiated by the Republican majority's decision last week to reintroduce the bill after it languished in committee for several months.
The GOP's decision prompted a bitter partisan debate in the Legislature, as Democrats and labor advocates accused GOP lawmakers of doing LePage's "dirty work" after indicating that the right-to-work legislation would not be a priority this session.
Republicans say the amended version of LD 309 is no longer a "right-to-work" bill.
Nonetheless, the hearing drew right-to-work advocates. It also prompted more than 500 workers from the public and private sectors to descend on the State House to protest what they view as LePage's opening salvo against organized labor.
While LePage has vowed to go after right-to-work legislation, GOP lawmakers and the administration say LD 309 doesn't represent that effort.
The Senate on Thursday killed a companion right-to-work bill dealing with private-sector workers. The Senate Republican office announced the decision by saying right-to-work was "dead this session."
Labor advocates didn't buy it.
Joel Pitcher, a member of Local 6 at Bath Iron Works, was one of scores of private-sector union members who showed up for Thursday's rally. He said the decision to spike the private-sector bill was a ploy to get private unions like Local 6 to "disengage."
"It's divide and conquer, right?" Pitcher said. "They're basically saying, 'We'll take (public employees) first and come after (private) later.' ... We're ready to join the fight now."
During the public hearing, Dan Billings, LePage's legal counsel, said the bill was designed to reverse decisions under Democrat-controlled legislatures that forced the state to collect "fair share" fees from nonunion workers.
The fees are collected by unions in exchange for representing nonunion workers in grievances and salary negotiations.
Opponents of fair-share say workers shouldn't be forced to pay unions fees because they're private organizations that support Democratic causes and candidates.
Fair-share proponents argue that nonunion workers receive the benefits of collective bargaining, such as workplace protections and negotiated wages, while paying roughly half of full union dues.
Nonunion state workers pay about $250 year in fair-share fees, or about $5 per week.
Republicans say there are more than 2,700 nonunion state workers. Rep. Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle, said the union's estimated annual fair-share collection of about $675,000 was a "windfall."
"There are people who are still paying the union who don't believe in the union, and the ideology," McKane said, telling committee members that unions are "partisan organizations ... whether you admit it in this open forum or not."
Labor advocates countered that the fair-share fee is calculated to pay only for representation in collective bargaining, not political activity.
Billings said Democrats and labor advocates shouldn't be surprised that the administration and the GOP-controlled Legislature would seek to repeal the fair-share provisions enacted between 2003 and 2007.
But Democrats on the panel wondered why the legislation had been reintroduced so late in the session. They grilled Billings about the timing of the bill, which if passed, could strengthen the administration's bargaining position with the MSEA.
GOP leaders indicated two weeks ago that the bills were likely headed to the scrap heap after pulling them from committee. After LD 309 was reintroduced last week, Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said the bills were pulled from committee because of "an administrative error."
Billings said Thursday that LePage was "not happy" that the bill had languished in committee and that the administration had recently engaged leadership about bringing it back.
He also acknowledged that Louis DiLorenzo, a New York labor attorney whom LePage last month hired at $295 an hour to help administration officials negotiate with the MSEA, had helped draft the amendment.
The administration contends the bill would bring fair-share back to the bargaining table. But labor advocates say LD 309 is much more insidious.
Jeff Young, a Brunswick labor attorney, told the committee that the bill should be called "The Full Employment Act for Labor Lawyers" because its provisions — which he said were unprecedented in any other state — would cause "confusion and chaos."
Young said the bill would also prohibit the collection of dues from union members after a contract expires. Because most collective-bargaining contracts go beyond the previous contract's expiration date, unions could be forced to accept "unacceptable terms."