Union tensions, partisanship renew as GOP brings back right-to-work bill

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AUGUSTA — Republican lawmakers, with the backing of Gov. Paul LePage, on Wednesday reintroduced a right-to-work bill.

The late-session move is destined to mobilize organized labor protests at the State House as the Legislature speeds toward adjournment.

Democrats blasted the GOP for assisting LePage in what they saw as a politically motivated decision at the expense of bipartisan budget negotiations. Union leaders said the decision was the administration’s ploy to gain the upper hand in ongoing collective bargaining talks with the state employees’ and teachers’ unions.

The bill, LD 309, and a similar initiative was pulled out of committee last week after being assigned in February. Republicans, citing raucous labor protests in states like Wisconsin and the desire to pass the budget, said as recently as last week that the legislation wasn’t a priority and indicated that the bills would die quietly or get held over to next session.

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But Wednesday the House of Representatives voted 74-71 to send LD 309 back to committee for a June 2 public hearing. They waived the customary two-week public notice requirement.

Democrats’ parliamentary efforts to kill the bill twice failed, including a 74-74 vote that saw two Republican lawmakers vote with the minority.

Republicans plan to amend the bill, however the language was not made public Wednesday evening. However, Lance Dutson, communications director for House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said the new version will attempt to eliminate a provision that 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.

Federal law requires unions to represent non-union 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.

According to Dutson, there are about 2,500 nonunion state employees.

Union leaders said Wednesday that changing the fair share provision should be dealt with at the bargaining table, not through legislation.

Dutson said the issue couldn’t be handled through collective bargaining negotiations.

Determining which side is correct will likely yield legal wrangling from both sides, but on Wednesday, the debate was pure politics.

Democrats likened the GOP decision to its recently enacted insurance overhaul, fast-tracked legislation that turned a four-page bill dealing with community rating into a 45-page repeal and rewrite of Maine health insurance laws.

Republicans countered that the 2005 provision they’re trying to repeal was enacted by Democrats during the early morning passage of a majority budget.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, ascribed a more nefarious motive during the afternoon floor debate. Martin said Republican lawmakers were being strong-armed by LePage, whose administration discovered it had to repeal the fair share provision to gain leverage at the bargaining table with public employee unions.

Martin referred to Louis DiLorenzo, a New York labor attorney whom LePage last month hired at $295 an hour to help administration officials negotiate with the Maine State Employees Association.

LePage, whose press availability has been increasingly sparse throughout his term, was not available for comment Wednesday.

However, Dutson said Martin’s claim was without merit given that the Legislature had previously demonstrated a willingness to vote against the governor’s other initiatives.

Labor leaders weren’t convinced.

“The real story here is that the governor is trying to get the Legislature to do his dirty work,” said Matt Schlobohm of Maine AFL-CIO.

Schlobohm and Chris Quint of the Maine State Employees Union said their members were ready to mobilize.

“It’s the continuation of the anti-worker sentiment of this governor, from the labor mural to child labor laws,” Quint said. “We’re going to fight this thing every step of the way.”

smistler@sunjournal.com

This story was updated to clarify the intent of the anticipated amendment to LD 309.

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