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LePage Dispute with State Workers' Union Headed for Hearing
03/08/2012   Reported By: Tom Porter

The LePage administration looks set to stand trial for violating labor relations laws, although state officials are playing down the development. The Maine Labor Relations Board decided yesterday to uphold part of a complaint made last fall by a labor union representing 15,000 state employees. In October, The Maine State Employees Association, or MSEA, filed a 21-page complaint against the administration accusing it, among other things, of negotiating in bad faith with state workers.

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LePage Dispute with State Workers' Union Headed fo Listen
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"The decision from the labor board is great, it's very good news: We're going to be able to get a hearing, a trial, on these important issues and we're looking forward to it," says MSEA counsel Tim Belcher. Belcher says the state made a few concessions on minor points, but showed no willingness to consider the union's core demands, and seemed determined to renegotiate a new labor contract under its own terms.

Belcher says one of the union's main complaints was a demand by the state that union fees no longer be automatically deducted from workers' paychecks. "What it would mean is that they could put their demands on the table and if we didn't accept them they could just shut off our funding stream, and we'd be effectively put out of business if we didn't accept their terms," --something which Belcher describes as a form of "economic warfare."

"It is true that a hearing will be held on that portion of the complaint," says Mark Ayotte, executive director of the Maine Labor Relations Board. "To stand trial sounds a little more dramatic than an administrative hearing in front of the Maine Labor Relations Board."

Ayotte is keen to stress that his decision upholding part of the union's complaint is a long way from being an endorsement of the union's position. "This is a preliminary decision. All it says is that they have alleged sufficient facts to state a claim. This has nothing to do with what actually may have happened."

Ayotte's decision rejected a request from the LePage administration that he dismiss the union's complaint, but he also rejected parts of the union's complaint. And it was this aspect of the board's decision that state officials focused on in their response--in particular the ruling that the state did not unlawfully discriminate against state workers' rights during collective bargaining.

Julie Armstrong is counsel in the Office of Employee Relations. Reached by cellphone, she said the state had expected from the beginning that it would have to defend its claim in a hearing. "We look forward to putting on our own version of the events before the full Labor Relations Board, and we feel that when they hear our version of events that they will conclude that the state has not committed a prohibited practice," Armstrong says.

Nevertheless, many do regard the board's decision as significant. Former Democratic legislator John Richardson has been practicing as an attorney specializing in labor issues for more than 20 years. He's also the former state commissioner for economic development and currently represents the Maine State Law Enforcement Association, which is not a party to these negotiations.

"This should be a wake-up call for the state because I don't recall a time in the recent past where a union sued the state over collective bargaining or not being willing or able to sit down and negotiate a contract," Richardson says.

"Failure to negotiate in good faith is really a very critical area," says John Hanson, former director of the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine. "It suggests that one party really refused to make any show of movement towards getting a settlement." Hanson says in his 33 years at the bureau, he does not recall a governor facing these charges.

The date for the trial--or hearing if you prefer--before the labor board has not been decided. Negotiations between the state and its employees over a new contract have been going on since last April.



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