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Maine Labor Unions Blast "Right-to-Work" Bills
03/22/2011   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

More than 300 representatives of organized labor packed the State House today to lobby against two bills they say will undermine the collective bargaining process in Maine. The so-called "right-to-work" proposals would remove a requirement that workers who choose not to join a union still have to pay union dues. Labor officials say the governor and some State House Republicans are trying to use the legislation to break the unions.

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Ron Green, a Bangor firefighter and longtime union negotiator, has brokered numerous collective bargaining agreements. He and other labor activists came to the State House to question the motives behind a pair of bills that, if enacted, would no longer require public or private workers in unionships to pay a fee to the collective bargaining units that negotiate their benefits.

"Where did this legislation come from?" Green asked. "It was not a campaign issue last fall. It is plain and simply a way to bust unions and take our rights away."

Workers cannot be forced to join a union in Maine, but unions are required to represent the interests of non-members, who, in many instances, pay a fee, also know as a "fair share." The payment helps unions defray contract negotiation costs.

But opponents of the bills, including Ron Green, say that without the requirement, union enrollment could drop as workers conclude they will get the same benefits whether they pay or not.

"The proposed legislation would begin to erode our right to sit down with our employers and negotiate our issues and benefits," Green said. "I think we have done a good job of that. We have collectively worked out our agreements that have benefitted both sides. With all of the employers that I have negotiated with over the last few years, I have never once heard any of them say, 'We don't want to negotiate with you anymore,' or, 'We have a problem with people choosing to join unions or pay dues.'"

"Mr. LePage and your big money backers from Virginia, hear us, you will not silence Maine's unionized nurses--you will not silence us, the hard-working unionized workers of Maine," said Katherine Harper, a nurse at the unionized MDI Hospital on Mount Desert Island.

Harper directed a barrage of crticism toward Gov. Paul LePage, who has said that he favors the so-called "right to work" bill, and who has crafted a budget that requires financial sacrifices by unionized state employees and teachers.

Harper says LePage's assualt on unions workers is political payback for the corporate contributions he received during his election campaign.

"Paul LePage was elected by a minority of the citizens of Maine--just 38 percent of the vote--and he did this with the help of generous--very generous--corporate interests," she said. "Now he's going after some of the only working people in Maine--unionized workers--who can stand up for Mainers, all Mainers who deserve good wages for a good day's work."

"Look, the whole issue for right to work is a person's freedom of association," says Rep. Rich Cebra, a Naples Republican who is co-sponsoring the right-to-work bill. He says that workers shouldn't have to pay union fees if they don't want to join the union.

"It's got to do with their individual freedoms and it's got to do with their own right to choose what they're members of and what they belong to," he says. "I'm primarily focused on state employees and the fair share provision in the state employees contracts, and I think it's time for us to allow people that freedom of choice and the opportunity to determine who they're associated with."

State Sen. Bill Diamond, a Windham Democrat, says both bills seemed to reflect a larger national effort to erode union activity. He says the effort is particularly misplaced in Maine, where he says union members represent only about 13 percent of the work force.



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