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Maine 'Right-to-Work' Bills Spark Heated Testimony
04/01/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Tempers flared today during a public hearing in Augusta, where a legislative policy committee reviewed a pair of so-called right-to-work bills that opponents claim are nothing more than a Republican union-busting tactic. The bills would eliminate provisions in some private and public employee union contracts that either force employees to join unions and pay dues, or not join and pay representation fees. Opponents say passing the legislation would weaken, and ultimately eliminate, a union's effectiveness, while supporters argue the legislation would improve Maine's job climate. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Maine 'Right-to-Work" Bills Spark Heated Testimony Listen
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Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst, presents his right-to-work bills as Gov, Paul LePage's staffers John Butera, left and Michael Cianchette, right, keep an eye on the door to the hearing room.

Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst, presents his right-to-work bills as Gov, Paul LePage's staffers John Butera, left and Michael Cianchette, right, keep an eye on the door to the hearing room.

Forced unionism. Fair Share. Freedom to choose. Right-to-work: There are a lot of catch phrases thrown around to describe the practice that Rep. Larry Lockman would like to change. No matter what it's called, Lockman - an Amherst Republican - says it's time to end public and private employee union policies that require workers to join a union or pay representation fees.

Lockman has come up with his own definition: "It's about ending a corporate monopoly - let me put it that way," Lockman says.

Lockman presented two bills to the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. One would eliminate the current practice of deducting fees from the paychecks of public employees who choose not to join a union. The other would affect workers in the private sector and would alow workers to refuse to join a union as a condition of employment.

The absence of those kind of closed-shop policies are often referred to by Republicans as right-to-work issues, and are in force in 24 states. Lockman told the committee that when unions force workers to join, demand payment from them, or even represent them without payment, it amounts to a kind of monopoly.

"Current labor law, federal and state, grants these private corporations called labor unions a monopoly - they are granted a monopoly to bargain on behalf of all state employees, whether they are members or not, whether they pay or not," he says. "And this is about breaking up the monopoly, and, frankly, it would force unions to actually compete in the marketplace to gain the allegiance of people, to see, 'Are you offering something of value that I want to pay for?'" Lockman said.

Gov. Paul LePage continues to list right-to-work legislation as a goal for his administration, something that he thinks will attract out-of-state corporations to Maine.

John Butera, the governor's senior economic advisor, told the legislators on the panel that Lockman's bills are designed to give individual workers choices. Butera said that from 1990 to 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that private sector payrolls in right-to-work states soared by 32 percent - three times higher than in states with fair share provisions.

'We need to make Maine competitive," Butera said. "Becoming a right-to-work state is a step in the right direction. Becoming a right-to-work state will afford Maine the opportunity to share in some of the economic benefits that other right-to-work states experience."

But there were plenty of opinions to the contrary about what right-to-work is really about - including several offered by state Rep. Stanley Short, a Pittsfield Democrat.

"Due to the right-to-work legislation since 1986 being passed in southern states, our workers were entered into a race to the bottom," Short said.

Short blasted the bills anti-union legislation that wrongly assigns blame for the lackluster state and national economy on union workers. His position is supported by Matt Schlobohm, executive director of Maine's AFL-CIO. When Republican Rep. Amy Volk of Scarborough, asked the labor leader why right-to-work laws have been adopted by nearly half the states if the policies are unnecessary, Schlobohm said the arguments were driven by politics and that there was no hard data to link right-to-work laws with expanded employment opportunities in Maine.

"I think it fails to pass the straight-face test, that a company is going to base its decision on whether to come to the state of Maine upon whether it's legal or illegal for employers and employees to negotiate a clause in a contract that dictates whether someone needs to contribute a fee for representation," Schlobohm said.

At times, exchanges between lawmakers and those testifying were intense - particularly when Eric Brakey, of the Defense of Liberty Political Action Committee, said he opposed union influence in elections, including the election of committee member Rep. James Campbell.

Brakey said Campbell, a Newfield independent, received about 25 percent of his campaign contributions from unions. Campbell objected.

"I'm not going to sit here for one minute, buster, and have you accuse me of anything," Campbell said. "Do I support the unions? You bet your life I do."

Members of the committee may hold a work session on both bills later this week.

Photos by A.J. Higgins.

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