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Maine House Democrats Block "Right-to-Work" Bills
04/24/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Democrats in the Maine House used their sizeable majority today to block two Republican bills critics say are aimed at weakening unions. The hour-long debate inflamed some old tensions between Democrats and Republicans over whether the so-called "right-to-work" bills improve the lives of middle class workers or create a more vibrant and competitive local economy for new business. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Republicans and Democrats can't even agree on the name of the policy they're debating. Democrats who favor current union laws in Maine that require workers in a union shop to pay a fee for representation in collective bargaining call the practice "fair share." Republicans who favor the elimination of that same policy call it "right to work."

Either way, Rep. Erin Herbig, the House chair of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, said she was determined to defeat the GOP bill that would basically give private sector workers in a union shop the benefits of the working contract without paying representation fees.

"This bill has nothing to do with right to work - it does just the opposite," Herbig said. "It undermines workers' rights."

The private sector bill - and another that would end the current practice of having public employers deduct fees from the paychecks of workers who chose not to join the union - are sponsored by state Rep. Larry Lockman, of Amherst. He received the support of Republicans, such as Rep. Amy Volk of Scarborough. Volk reminded her seatmates of the differences in economic growth between so-called right-to-work states that don't require representation fees and those that do.

"The fact is, over the last decade, manufacturing growth has nearly three times faster in right-to-work areas compared to Maine - three times faster." she said. "Just yesterday, in my committee - Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development - we were discussing how we could inject economic energy into Maine's rural areas. This is the answer."

"We've rejected measures like this in the past because we refuse to join a race to the bottom," said Rep. Seth Berry.

Berry, the House majority leader, says wages run about $1,500 a year less than those paid in non-right-to-work states. But Republican Rep. Wayne Parry, of Arundel, argues that any of those jobs would look good to many Mainers.

"If we don't make some of these changes, we're going to continue to have 50,000 people with no job," Parry said. "I think they would just as soon have a job."

The bills' sponsor, Rep. Larry Lockman, said that in the case of current policies that require the state of Maine to deduct representation fees for non-union members working under the union's contract - much of the blame for the current policy falls on former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and the Democratic majority in the Legislature.

"In 2007, Gov. Baldacci teamed up with the Legislature and the MSEA [Maine State Employees Association] to enact a new law that made the state of Maine a collection agent for the union, with forced withholding of agency fees from of all state employees covered by MSEA contracts," Lockman said. "What a sweet deal this was."

That prompted a response from former Republican - and now independent - Rep. Jim Campbell, who accused his former seatmates of knuckling under GOP Gov. Paul LePage, who supports both bills. Republicans raised a ruckus that prompted House Speaker Mark Eves to issue a call for decorum.

"Well all I can say is, thank the dear lord that the teachers and the rest of them got unions, with this administration that's in here now that you're all in bed with to destroy the unions," Campbell said, prompting grumbling from some House members.

"Will the representative defer," Eves said. "The chair will remind members to direct their comments through the chair in debates as we move forward."

Democrats defeated the private sector right-to-work bill 92-53 and the public employee bill by a vote of 89-56. The bills now move to the Senate.


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