AUGUSTA — With Maine government finances still on unsteady ground, negotiations are due to begin for labor contracts that will cover thousands of state workers after the current agreements end June 30.

The talks will begin under a cloud of precarious government revenues and looming debts to the state pension system – and also as a sour taste remains in union members’ mouths over what they had to give up to help balance the state’s recession-plagued budget in 2009.

The state workers will seek to counter newly elected Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s claims that state government is “bloated” and wasteful.

The bulk of the workers affected are the 10,000 in the Executive Branch who are covered by the Maine State Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union. They are broken into four bargaining units representing clerical workers; building, grounds and plow crews; professional-technical workers; and supervisory services workers.

The MSEA also represents a few hundred judicial branch workers, and some legislative branch employees.

“We’re really talking about the people who keep Maine moving,” said MSEA spokesman Tom Farkas. “The upcoming contract bargaining is all about making sure that these state workers have the tools to do their jobs and that they’re treated fairly.”

Farkas said the negotiating team elected by membership has just begun to meet. It’s too early to say at this stage what they will request and what the state will offer. Wages and benefits from all Executive Branch state employees account for 14.5 percent of the state budget, according to the MSEA.

In addition, contracts covering employees in prisons and other institutional settings, represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers, and law-enforcement units including state police, are up for negotiations.

Negotiations are under way for legislative branch employees. Bargaining units that aren’t currently engaged in negotiations are expected to begin doing so in the weeks and months ahead.

The unions will go into talks mindful of what they had to give up as the Legislature slashed spending to balance the state’s books in 2008-09. State workers gave up more than $34 million in wage and benefit cuts, including 20 unpaid shutdown days, a freeze on merit pay and loss of longevity pay for a year, Farkas said.

“While our members understood the notion of shared sacrifices as the economy bottomed out, they also felt the budget was being balanced on their backs” he said.

Meanwhile, many union members remain miffed by an internal political strategy memo during LePage’s transition that said the new governor “will put 11,000 bureaucrats to work getting Republicans re-elected,” a claim the union charged smacks of illegality.

The author, LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt, later clarified his statement by saying it was not meant to politicize state workers and was about making government more effective rather than pounding in campaign signs. Demeritt says the administration is now looking forward to contract negotiations as a chance to work with the state workers.

“It’s a good opportunity to improve operations and make sure state government as efficient and effective as it can be,” he added.

The MSEA is also out to challenge notions that state workers are overpaid and underworked. Their website features a report done by a private consulting group for the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services that compares state employees’ salaries and wages with those of comparable private sector workers.

Crescendo Consulting Group used survey results from more than 200 companies comparing pay and benefits for dozens of jobs to reach its conclusions. It found state workers in administrative positions, skilled trades, human resources and some clerical jobs at the greatest disadvantage in wages to their private sector counterparts. But state insurance packages and pensions were better.

Fearing that LePage will seek to contract out work done by state employees, especially in the Department of Transportation, the union said such a strategy “will absolutely increase the state’s costs of providing public services to Maine people.”