AUGUSTA — Lawmakers could once again review a contentious bill that would repeal the state's duty to collect fees from nonunion, public-sector workers.
Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, co-chairman of the Legislature's Labor Committee, said Monday that the bill could come up during a Wednesday work session.
The so-called right-to-work bill, LD 309, could amplify the partisan atmosphere as the abbreviated session moves to a close. The carryover bill repeatedly surfaced last year and was the subject of protests among private- and public-sector unions.
The possibility of revisiting the legislation has set union advocates on high alert. The Maine AFL-CIO and the Maine State Employees Union have described the bill as right-to-work legislation designed to weaken unions by bleeding financial resources.
The bill as currently written attempts to end a provision that currently requires the state to garnish the wages of nonunion state workers and teachers who don't pay unions a fee, or "fair share," for representation in collective bargaining negotiations.
The fees are collected by unions in exchange for representing nonunion workers in grievances and salary negotiations.
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 a year in fair-share fees, or about $5 per week.
Opponents of fair-share say workers shouldn't be forced to pay unions fees because the unions are private organizations that support Democratic causes and candidates. Federal law requires unions to represent nonunion workers in negotiations, meaning those workers receive the same benefits as union employees.
In 2005, Democrats passed a majority budget that included fair-share in the public worker collective bargaining agreement. The provision was changed in 2007 to ensure that nonunion workers couldn't be terminated for not paying the fair share. The 2007 change made the state responsible for garnishing nonunion worker wages to obtain the representation fee.
Labor leaders say that removing the garnishment provision could force unions to sue nonunion workers if they don't pay the representation fee.
There are about 2,500 nonunion state employees. Fair-share employees who testified in support of LD 309 said the fair share fee is used by unions to support Democratic political causes to which the employees personally object.
Republicans add that the 2005 provision they're trying to repeal was enacted by Democrats during the early-morning passage of a majority budget.
The GOP has said the bill isn't right-to-work legislation, which has surfaced in other state legislatures and become the subject of labor protests. Last summer LD 309 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 attack against organized labor.
The LePage administration is currently embroiled in a legal dispute with the Maine State Employees Association following the failure of both sides to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. Last year union advocates accused the administration of bargaining in bad faith after forcing the Republican majority to take up LD 309 during the closing weeks of the session.
It remains to be seen how enthusiastic the GOP majority is about revisiting the legislation this year. If enacted, the bill could become a campaign topic during this year's legislative races.
Gov. Paul LePage's avid and often vocal support for the bill has not changed.
Adrienne Bennett, the governor's spokeswoman, said in a statement that while unions provide some beneficial services, there are some people who are not interested in those services.
"This (bill) protects state workers from having their wages garnished involuntarily, and it keeps the state from being required to act as a collection agency," Bennett said.
The Senate last year 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."
Nonetheless labor advocates say removing the fair-share law would be the first step toward a private sector right-to-work bill.