National union leader visits Maine to back Michaud, condemn LePage ‘right to work’ push

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BATH — The president of the nation’s largest unionized labor organization came to Maine on Wednesday to boost Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor, calling the congressman “a friend of the working people, whether they’re union or not.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka joined Michaud in two locations, first greeting workers at Bath Iron Works as they filed out of the shipyard for lunch and then visiting with unionized workers who have been working without a contract for two years at Huhtamaki North America, a paper goods manufacturer in Waterville.

Trumka, who the Maine Republican Party dismissed in a news release titled “Michaud campaigns with ‘union thug’ Trumka,” said his reason for supporting Michaud is both an endorsement of the Democrat and a condemnation of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who Trumka said “wants to weaken unions so he can lower the wages for all his rich donors.”

The Maine chapter of the AFL-CIO endorsed Michaud in October 2013.

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“He’s always been at the forefront of the fight for workforce development, stopping bad trade deals, extending unemployment benefits and increasing the minimum wage,” said Trumka. “He’s hasn’t shied and put his finger up to the wind to see which way the wind is blowing. He instinctively does what is right for the workers.”

The “finger in the wind” remark is a direct counter-attack to past Republican claims that Michaud has adapted his positions to meet evolving political needs.

Trumka’s visit to Bath Iron Works, which is outside Michaud’s congressional district, carries political significance beyond affirming the traditional alliance between organized labor and Democrats. While union leaders almost always support Democrats, the shipyard’s rank-and-file workers have become increasingly less vocal in their support for the party’s candidates.

After endorsing Democrats consistently in past elections, the four union locals at Bath Iron Works this year endorsed Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ re-election bid. A key difference between the Senate and gubernatorial races is that the contest between LePage and Michaud is neck-and-neck. Labor union support is crucial in a tight election because of unions’ ability to get members to the polls, not to mention the cash they contribute to elections.

The Maine Forward Political Action Committee, which operates in support of Michaud, announced in July that it would fund a $2 million television advertising campaign on Michaud’s behalf. The PAC is funded by a handful of groups, including the Maine AFL-CIO.

Besides attempting to enliven the Democrats’ ground game, Trumka’s visit also serves as a reminder that Michaud was a unionized worker for 29 years at the Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket before being elected to Congress.

Trumka’s visit and the AFL-CIO cash flowing into Michaud’s campaign coffers does not mean the shipyard’s union members will vote for the Democrat. Several BIW workers told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday that they support LePage, despite just being told by volunteers at BIW’s South Gate on Washington Street to “vote for your job. Vote Michaud. He’s a union brother.”

Nathan Ballew of Phippsburg said he’s been impressed with LePage’s accomplishments.

“He’s done more good than I’ve seen from anyone else,” said Ballew. “If you vote for someone because the union tells you to, you’re a tool.”

Lisbon resident Kim Martin, a painter, was one of a handful of workers who told the BDN that they support LePage’s efforts at welfare reform, but still couldn’t support the governor’s re-election bid because of his brash governing style.

“(LePage) needs to be schooled in relationships,” said Martin. “He needs to learn how to talk to people.”

Kelley Ammons of Topsham, an electrician at BIW and a union representative, said he and many of his co-workers support Michaud.

“He’s a union member who knows where we’re coming from,” said Ammons.

LePage has often said that making Maine a “right to work” state — which means workers wouldn’t be compelled to pay the equivalent of union dues for services such as collective bargaining — is among his top goals as governor and that the unions in Maine are one of the biggest impediments to economic development. LePage has tried and failed on at least three occasions to forward right-to-work legislation.

Trumka said busting unions is not the way to create jobs, and definitely not the way to help working-class families.

“Want to create jobs? Here’s how you do it it,” said Trumka. “Put money in workers’ pockets. They spend, they create demand and that demand creates jobs. You don’t do it by lowering their wages, attacking their pensions, attacking their health care and encouraging employers to do all that. … If you want a guy that will encourage the employers to make war on you as a worker, LePage is your guy.”

Michaud said another benefit of unions is that they are helping solve a problem that most agree is a sore spot in Maine: a lack of qualified workers.

“The unions are stepping up to the plate to help with training to close the skills gap,” said Michaud, who described LePage’s opposition to organized labor’s efforts to support workers as puzzling, given the governor’s troubled, impoverished upbringing.

“Gov. LePage was homeless and had a hard time growing up and I’m glad he’s done well with some help,” said Michaud. “But the governor has forgotten where he came from. I’ve never forgotten where I came from.”

Michaud will continue to emphasize support from another of his core constituencies in the coming days when former Republican Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi and former Republican chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee Steve Buyer come to Maine on Monday to stump for the Democrat in Lewiston and Kittery.

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