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Maine 'Right-to-Work' Bill Tabled, but Still Alive
04/04/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Dozens of union workers descended on the State House today to express their opposition to a bill that would allow public employees to opt out of paying union dues even though they would still benefit from collective bargaining. The so-called "right-to-work" legislation is supported by Gov. Paul LePage. But it does not appear to have much momentum in the Legislature.

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Maine 'Right-to-Work' Bill Tabled, but Still Alive Listen

Wearing red "Working America" tee shirts and badges that said "Respect Our Rights," workers lined the hallways of the State House to personally lobby lawmakers to vote against the legislation that they say is out of step with working Mainers' values.

At lunchtime, shipyard worker Dave Green of Local S 6 in Bath, stops Independent Sen. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth. It's one of many similar conversations he's been having all morning.

"We're just kind of hoping that you support our opposition to LD 309, the workers' right," Green tells Woodbury.

"I'm with you on the bill," Woodbury says.

"Great to hear that," Green says. "Thank you very much."

"All right!" Woodbury responds.

LD 309 was first introduced last session and carried over this year. Like other similar legislation introduced in the Midwest, it was expected to generate a lengthy and contentious debate. Union members view such measures as a direct assault on their numbers and their bottom line.

This year Indiana became the 23rd state to adopt "right-to-work legislation," and the first state to do so in about a decade. In Maine, opponents say they had been assured weeks ago by Republican leaders on the Labor Committee that there were no plans or interest in debating it, and that there weren't enough votes to get it passed.

Even the bill's chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Tom Winsor of Norway, isn't sure how it suddenly got scheduled for a work session in the remaining week of the legislative session.

"I have no idea, frankly, what--I wasn't involved in the scheduling of this bill," he says. "I'd like to see the discussion but if they--if leadership--chooses, and the committee chooses, not to discuss it now that's fine with me too."

At a crowded news conference in the State House Welcome Center, workers from both the private and public sectors, union and non-union, said the bill would do nothing to create jobs or stimulate the economy. Mike Williams is a firefighter from South Portland.

"LD 309 will make it harder for firefighters like myself, nurses, snowplow drivers, corrections officers and other hardworking public employees to establish safe working conditions for themselves and safe communities for all of us," Williams said. "Putting hard-working public service workers at risk will make it harder to find and keep the best people for these jobs. The fact is this governor was elected to work on creating jobs but instead he's attacking working people."

Williams accused Gov. LePage of trying to ram the bill through in the waning days of the session, and of attacking the rights of workers. Recently Maine lawmakers voted to abolish collective bargaining rights for workers at the former DeCoster factory egg farm and for child care workers.

Gov. LePage was unavailable for comment. But his spokesperson, Adrienne Bennett, explained why he supports the right-to-work bill.

"It allows paycheck protections for state workers," she says. "And we're not talking about private sector employees, we're talking about public sector employees, and it allows the state to no longer be a collection agency. And like I said earlier, it also allows for the state worker to be protected so their wages aren't taken involuntarily."

Bennett says the state has received complaints from about 2,500 employees who say they would prefer not to pay union dues. That's out of a state workforce of nearly 12,000 in total.

But the Catholic Diocese takes a different view about the equity issue. And speaking for himself at the workers' news conference, so does Father Michael Seavey of Portland.

"If public employee unions are required by law to represent all workers for contract negotiations, including those choosing not to be in unions, than everyone should pay their fair share for that service," he said to applause. "This is both ethically and morally sound and should remain in our state laws."

Following the workers' news conference, the co-chair of the Labor Committee announced at the work session that LD 309 was being indefinitely tabled. That means the bill is technically still alive. And Patrick Semmens of the National Right to Work Committee, which works for passage of similar legislation across the country, says it may take some time.

"In our experience it generally takes a few years, sometimes even longer than that, for really everyone to learn what a 'right-to-work' bill is about; how all it really does is give employees a choice over union dues and whether they want to support a union financially," Semmens says. "So we're optimistic this might be the first step toward the process of passing a right-to-work law in Maine."

Even before the scheduled work session, the National Right to Work Committee had sent out questionaires to candidates for state and federal office asking for their positions on right-to-work legislation, and requesting that they sign and date them.


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