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Maine AFL-CIO Holds 29th Convention with Eye Toward 2014 Gov's Race
10/24/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

While their numbers have declined over the last decade, Maine's unions continue to be a force to be reckoned with for politicans, business leaders and public policy makers. The Maine AFL-CIO held is holding its 29th biennial convention in Bangor over the next two days and is focusing on ways to grow membership and maximize its clout in next year's governor's race. A. J. Higgins reports.

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At a time when the national percentage of workers represented by collective bargaining agreements has dropped from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent, Maine's 64,000 unionized employees are holding their own. In fact, Maine saw a slight increase in its share of union workers last year, from 11.3 percent to 11.5 percent.

Matt Schlobohm, president of the Maine AFL-CIO, says things are looking up for organized labor in Maine.

"I think what's important is that workers start to organize in larger and larger numbers," Schlobohm says. 'I think that ball is moving in the right direction, and we'd like to see it move faster and bigger. And I think work is being done to help that happen."

Next week, the Maine Labor Relations Board will meet to consider aspects of a plan by municipal employees in the town of Warrne to unionize, and earlier this year, the Oxford County Deputy Association opted to be represented by the Teamsters. Even independent-minded Maine lobstermen are organizing, an example of how collective bargaining has spread to occupations that have, up to now, gone unrepresented.

Carol Sanborn is among the 20 paralegals at the Topsham law firm of McTeague, Higbee who joined the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers this year. Ironically, the firm specializes in labor law and represents the very same union. Sanborn says that's made organizing the office a somewhat delicate matter.

"We needed to choose our affiliation very carefully," she says. "We needed to have people helping us who had a high degree of integrity, so that our position would not be compromised at any point in the process. It was a rather delicate situation because, again, it was a client or affiliation going against its own lawyers."

But Sanborn says the relationship is working out well for all parties at the firm, and union officials say that message of collaboration is one they wish to build on in the year ahead as Maine prepares for its next gubernatorial election.

Cokie Giles, of the 2,000-member Maine State Nurses Association, says Mainers have never had a clearer choice between the two major parties this year. Incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage was manager of Marden's Surplus and Salvage in Maine, while Democratic challenger Mike Michaud is a former union fork lift operator at what was once the Great Northern Paper Co.

Michaud is on the AFL-CIO's schedule for both days, and has been endorsed by the 10,000-member Maine State Employees Association. Giles says it's clear why Michaud has union support.

"Mike Michaud - I feel he truly cares about people," Giles says. "I don't really understand Gov. LePage. I don't understand what he says, the way he says it, and the complete lack of any sort of compassion to the rest of the people in Maine."

Despite numbers that show unions holding their own in Maine, Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Hall says that support comes from public sector workers. He says Maine's private sector - particularly small businesses -continue to find no need for unions.

"That's the just the reality," Hall says. "I think about all the job growth that's occuring in this region, I don't know that any of it's unionized. I really don't."

While Maine's percentage of unionized workers remains constant on a year-to-year basis at 11.5 percent, it has declined over the last dozen years, when nearly 14 percent of all of the state's workers were affiliated with a union.

Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, msot of MPBN's reporting staff is represented by the Maine Education Association.


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