AUGUSTA — The head of the state workers' union said Wednesday that attacks against organized labor from Gov. Paul LePage and the Republican-controlled Legislature were pushing his membership to the brink of protests now unfolding in state houses in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.
"We're on the precipice," Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, said. "We get flooded with calls everyday from our members asking us when we're going to take to the streets."
The demonstrations raging in Wisconsin followed Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public workers and teachers. In Indiana and Ohio, unionized state workers are opposing "right-to-work" legislation that would prevent unions from requiring their members to pay dues.
So far, there are no proposals to eliminate collective bargaining rights in Maine, and a spokesman for LePage said Wednesday that the governor had no imminent plans to include such measures in his second phase of regulatory reform proposals.
However, LePage supports right-to-work legislation that is currently being advanced by Republican lawmakers. Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, has two bills that address unions' ability to collect dues. The first, LD 309, would address public employees. The second would address all unions in the private sector.
If enacted, the proposals would effectively make Maine a right-to-work state. According to the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, 22 states have right-to-work laws, but none are in New England.
Dan Demeritt, LePage's communications director, said proposals such as Winsor's mesh with the governor's philosophy about unions.
"He believes that any Maine worker that wants to be part of a union ought to have the opportunity to do that," Demeritt said. "He also believes that union membership shouldn't be a condition of employment."
But Quint said right-to-work laws could hamper a union's ability to bargain on behalf of its members. He was also concerned that the legislation, the governor's budget and anti-union rhetoric potentially foreshadowed a battle that could look like Wisconsin.
He said LePage is balancing the budget on the backs of 15,000 state workers with $524 million in proposed cuts in retirement and health benefits.
Quint described the anti-union legislation in other states as a nationally coordinated effort by wealthy corporations like Koch Industries, which has reportedly funded a network of free-market think tanks to advance policies to roll back environmental laws, break unions and create tax breaks for corporations.
Koch's political action committee was also one of Wisconsin Gov. Walker's top campaign contributors. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which also receives Koch funding, reportedly advised Walker in his proposal to eliminate collective bargaining.
Quint said he is concerned that outside actors influenced LePage's budget via the Maine Heritage Policy Center. The conservative advocacy group is affiliated with the State Policy Network, which also receives Koch support.
MHPC does not disclose the identity of its donors.
"If we're ever able to see (MHPC's) books, I think we would see the Koch brothers fingers all over it," Quint said. "That's my opinion. If you look at the budget proposal ... and you look at what (MHPC) has been pushing for the last couple of years, there's the link (to Koch)."
Tarren Bragdon, CEO of the MHPC, played a significant role in drafting LePage's budget, while several former MHPC members occupy prominent positions in the governor's administration.
Quint said MHPC's presence in the governor's office made him question LePage's role in drafting the budget.
"This budget has MHPC fingerprints all over it, whether it be charter schools or cuts in pension and health benefits," Quint said. "Those ideas are now manifested in this current governor and budget. My question is, is this truly the governor's budget, or is this written by staffers at the policy center?"
Bragdon said Wednesday that the spending plan "represents the governor's priorities, not my own." Although Bragdon clearly had a say in LePage's proposals, he said the policy center would have been more far more aggressive.
He pointed to a study MHPC released Wednesday that recommended cutting 3,880 state jobs. LePage's budget proposes eliminating 81 positions.
Bragdon said Quint's "crazy notion" that the MHPC's policies came from an outside actor was false, as were "conspiracy theories" linking the center to Koch.
"I just think such claims are ridiculous and paranoid," Bragdon said. "We are a Maine-based organization with over 1,500 donors, 95 percent of which reside right here in Maine. Statements like that may work in a conspiracy world, but they don't work in the real world. It's just not true."
Demeritt said that if LePage's proposals looked "like conspiracy, then it's probably because every state has the same problems."
"Maine, like Wisconsin, was one of the only states that went completely blue (Democrat) to completely red (Republican)," he said. "People were clearly ready for a change."
Meanwhile, Winsor said he hoped his right-to-work legislation wouldn't be viewed as anti-union. He said his proposal was designed as an incentive for union leadership to become more responsive to members.
"This should be a challenge to unions to represent their employees or offer value to members," Winsor said.
Quint said the proposals surfacing in Maine were too similar to those in other states to be considered benevolent.
"The biggest threat is that all of this is coming at once," he said.