Political Pulse: The self-fulfilling prophecy of Maine's looming labor fight

Last week, Chris Quint, the head of the state employees union, told the Sun Journal that his members were on the brink of staging protests similar to those taking place in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.

Quint's proclamation may have surprised some who believe the effects on state workers of Gov. Paul LePage's proposed budget don't appear as severe as measures levied by other GOP governors, who support eliminating collective bargaining altogether.

But Quint isn't just concerned with what LePage has already proposed; he's worried about what's next and who's calling the shots.

Quint last week said the anti-union movement was nationally coordinated by large corporations that he claimed were using a network of conservative think tanks to embed union-busting policy and other measures into GOP legislatures and governor's offices.

Given the close relationship between LePage and the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, Quint said, Maine state workers should be prepared for the worst.

Tarren Bragdon, the CEO of MHPC, responded by calling Quint's claims "paranoid."

MHPC's influence in the LePage administration has been documented. The governor tends to highlight the center's research to back policy. Bragdon helped lead LePage's transition and select cabinet appointees. He also played a significant role in drafting the governor's proposed budget. In addition, several former MHPC officials occupy senior positions in the governor's office.

It's unclear if like-minded think tank staffers hold similar positions in other states' governor's offices. But other organizations certainly appear to have the same sway  over policy.

In Wisconsin, two think tanks, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and MacIver Institute for Public Policy, have reportedly provided research to support Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate collective bargaining.

Walker is using a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute study claiming the state could save $68 million a year if teachers switched their health insurance from a union-created trust to the state's plan. Walker said the study illustrated one of the reasons why eliminating collective bargaining was necessary.

Both organizations have since rallied behind Walker as teachers and state workers have taken to the streets. A senior fellow at the institute recently penned an op-ed in the New York Times to support Walker's initiative, while MacIver released a series of videos critical of protesting teachers.

In Ohio, the state senate is considering a bill that would also eliminate collective bargaining rights for public workers. The bill is supported by Gov. John Kasich and the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a conservative think tank.

Interestingly, Buckeye and Kasich have also discussed leasing that state's turnpike to a private company, an idea that LePage and the Legislature may soon consider with the Maine Turnpike. (An MHPC spokesman recently told the Sun Journal that the organization hasn't taken a position on turnpike privatization, although the issue was raised during a seminar.)

Buckeye, like MHPC, has also published research claiming that turnpike toll collectors earn exorbitant salaries. Both groups have databases that allow people to search the salaries of public employees, such as teachers and state workers.

Collective bargaining is also challenged in Indiana, where Gov. Mitch Daniels has called public union members the "privileged elite." The Indiana Policy Review Foundation, another conservative think tank agrees. Last week it published a column criticizing a Republican lawmaker for backing off the proposal.

Each of the conservative think tanks named above, including MHPC, belong to the State Policy Network. SPN is funded by conservative organizations and the Koch brothers, billionaire libertarians funneling resources to the fight in Wisconsin and financiers of Walker.

The Kochs are the en vogue villains for progressives.

The interplay between these groups and GOP governors, and MHPC and LePage, has state employees lashing out at the center and playing up the Koch link (Bragdon denied that, too).

Last week Quint accused Bragdon of scooping up state e-mail addresses to send out donation requests.

MHPC last week announced that the governor should rid itself of 3,880 state employees to "right-size" public employment with the private sector.

It's not clear what such a move would do to the state's unemployment rate or unemployment costs or what sort of private sector jobs await the would-be displaced state workers.

However, Bragdon said the MHPC recommendation showed that the center isn't pulling the strings in the governor's office.

Some remain unconvinced, arguing that MHPC's study benefits LePage by making the layoffs in his budget proposal — 81 positions eliminated, 12 actual layoffs — appear moderate by comparison.

If LePage's attempts to change organized labor really are part of a nationally coordinated attack, progressives and labor will likely respond with a coordinated attack of their own, just as the Democratic National Committee's Organizing for America did in Wisconsin.

Last week Quint was in Washington, D.C., huddling with labor groups and progressive organizations to devise a defense strategy.

On Saturday several hundred pro-union demonstrators turned out at the State House to voice support for unions and solidarity with their colleagues in other states. The demonstration was countered by a rally of about 50 people reportedly from the local tea party.

It was a far cry from Wisconsin, where both sides flew in out-of-state activists to amplify the protests. But LePage and Quint seem to think that scene could happen in Augusta as progressive organizations like the Maine Center for Economic Policy activate their own network. 

During his weekend radio address the governor said it looked like the "spectacle" of Wisconsin was headed to Maine. 

At this point, it sure appears that the governor is correct.

smistler@sunjournal.com

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Mark Turek's picture

SEIU Local 1989 deserves a Procedural Audit

Chris Quint is fairly new to his position with SEIU Local 1989, but that organization still needs to be held accountable for their inappropriate use of taxpayer resources. If his organization would act more like a good old fashioned labor union that actually cares about their members, SEIU Local 1989 would not have to be fighting for survival as they now are. Just imagine, if they stopped focusing on a political agenda, people would probably be happy to join and support that union versus the current mandate for forced unionism with zero fiscal accountability of that Far-Left PAC. If/When a Procedural Audit is conducted at SEIU Local 1989, Maine taxpayers will see how that union/PAC has been abusing the state system for years. The chickens are finally coming home to roost!

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