AUGUSTA – Both sides in a debate over whether workers should have to pay union dues have the same argument: It’s a fairness issue.

State Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, says workers should not have to pay union dues if they choose not to, even if their workplace is unionized. Gov. Paul LePage, also a Republican, agrees.

But Democrats and labor groups disagree — they say it’s unfair for workers to benefit from the collective bargaining work of unions without chipping in.

The issue — which could affect about 78,000 Mainers who currently belong to unions — is poised to take on new life in Augusta this year because Winsor has submitted a so-called “right-to-work” proposal. For the first time in decades, Republicans control both the Legislature and Blaine House.

“I just think it’s morally wrong to impose upon anyone the requirement that they pay a fee to work,” Winsor said. “I know that the unions feel that this is an attack on them and their ability to organize, and I kind of see it as a different way.”

Other Republican lawmakers have submitted similar measures — the revisor’s office has yet to draft the bills.

Twenty-two states, none in New England, currently are “right-to-work” states.

Winsor said he sponsored similar legislation years ago that was defeated along partisan lines by Democrats.

Democrats still oppose the measure, and the state AFL-CIO has identified the fight as its top priority.

“I just don’t know how anyone can say, ‘No, I should be able to get that benefit you’re paying for, but I shouldn’t have to pay for any of it,’ ” said state Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who serves on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

Under current Maine law, new employees at unionized workplaces do not have to join the unions. But in most cases, negotiated contracts include clauses that require nonunion workers to contribute to the cost of union representation. That’s because under federal law, unions are required to represent everyone in the workplace, whether or not they are members.

Many of Maine’s largest businesses have unionized work forces — such as Bath Iron Works and FairPoint Communications — but not everyone signs up.

At BIW, for example, about 4,200 of 5,700 workers, about three-quarters of the work force, are unionized, according to a spokesman. The company has not taken a position on the pending legislation.

Matt Schlobohm, the Maine AFL-CIO’s public policy and political mobilization director, said this is the top issue for his group this year.

“We’re all-in on this campaign to make sure this doesn’t happen,” he said. “People are working longer hours, they are working more jobs, it’s harder to get a good retirement, it’s harder to get good health benefits and what this kind of legislation does is undermine workers’ ability to gain economic security.”

Schlobohm said the legislation would weaken unions and their ability to negotiate better wages and working conditions for Maine workers — about 12 percent of whom are currently unionized.

In Virginia, the closest right-to-work state to Maine, only about 5 percent of workers are unionized.

“The motivation for workers to join a union, because of the law, is weakened,” said Julie Hunter, communications director for the Virginia AFL-CIO. She said Virginia’s law has been on the books since 1947, so it would be almost impossible to know what impact the law has had on workers’ wages.

“Right-to-work” legislation is being vigorously promoted by groups like the National Right to Work Committee, a nonprofit organization that has been promoting right-to-work legislation in states since 1955.

Greg Mourad, the group’s legislative director, says the measure promotes economic activity and contends that many companies don’t consider states that aren’t right-to-work states when they think about expansion or relocation.

“Maine loses out on a great deal of economic activity that they never know that they missed out on because companies strike them off the list before they even start talking to officials about where they might want to move,” Mourad said.

Mourad said he has been in touch with people in Maine who support the legislation and is optimistic about its chances of passage.

“The biggest advantage from our perspective, of course, is the freedom of the individual worker to choose whether or not a union deserves his support,” he said.

But Schlobohm disagreed.

“This is the biggest anti-union businesses in the country trying to undermine the ability of workers to gain a fair share in the economy,” he said. “I also think it’s a very ideologically driven agenda, it’s about an out-of-state agenda that’s about wanting to eliminate unions from the economy.”

Winsor, the bill’s sponsor, said it isn’t about weakening unions. If unions are helping their workers, they would willingly contribute dues, he said.

“If you are getting something that you value, then you’ll pay for it. It’s not unlike Maine Public Radio and television,” said Winsor, who is retired from the real estate industry. “We all watch it, or many of us do — they have great programming — not everybody pays into it, but enough people pay into it to support it.”

The Maine Public Broadcasting Network is supported by voluntary contributions, but it also receives taxpayer funding.

Schlobohm said the situation is more like asking people if they would like to opt out of paying taxes, but still expect the fire department to come save their burning house.

The issue has not historically been a top priority of Maine companies.

Peter Gore, the Maine Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for advocacy and government relations, said his group had not yet determined its position on the proposal.

“It’s not a piece of legislation that the chamber’s ever submitted,” he said. “I think it will be a subject of significant conversation in our policy committees.”

LePage said last week during a press event announcing new Cabinet nominations that he supports the right-to-work proposals.

“I believe that everyone who wants to work should be able to work without the threat of having to have money taken out of their paychecks against their will,” he said. “By the same token, I firmly believe that an individual who wants to be in an organized environment ought to have every single right to do so.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

rmetzler@mainetoday.com