AUGUSTA – Dan Locke had $255.87 taken out of his pay last year to cover a mandatory service fee to the Maine State Employees Association.

He’s not a union member, but as a hydrogeologist for the Maine Geological Survey, he’s required to chip in to help cover the union’s costs for collective bargaining and grievances.

He didn’t think it was right when it started in 2005, and he doesn’t think it’s right today. He fought it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, losing a case in 2009 — Locke v. Karass — that upheld the union’s practice of sending some of his money to a national affiliate.

“If you do happen to be a conservative and you’re forced to pay a fee to a labor union, for the most part, they are going to use whatever resources they have to propagate their interests,” said Locke, a Farmingdale resident who has been a state employee for 26 years. “I resent that.”

Locke supports an effort by Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, to make voluntary the service fee, sometimes called a “fair share fee.” It’s an amendment to a bill, L.D. 309, that will be heard Thursday by the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

The bill has become a hot-button issue, coming forward late in the legislative session and with contract talks beginning between the state and the union.

L.D. 309 took what Democrats described as a “circuitous route” to this week’s public hearing. It was referred to the committee in February, then pulled from the committee, then sent back on partisan votes last week in the House and Senate.

That process has angered Democrats so much that some have suggested it could hamper upcoming deliberations on the $6.1 billion state budget proposed by Gov. Paul LePage for the two years that start July 1.

The bill is supported by LePage and by Republicans, who are in the majority in the Legislature for the first time in decades.

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor wants to make things work the way they did before his Democratic predecessor, Gov. John Baldacci, took office.

“The governor has always said anybody should be able to be part of the union,” she said, “but forcing people to pay something to the union is where he disagrees.”

The Maine State Employees Association argues that the fee — about 54 percent of the cost of regular union dues — covers the cost of collective bargaining and grievances for employees who are covered by the state contract but aren’t members of the union. The fee is calculated each year based on expenses for those services.

The union sees the late-session move to change the system as the continuation of a series of attacks on organized labor.

Chris Quint, executive director of the MSEA, said LePage’s budget would target workers by requiring them to pay more to the state pension system and by changing health insurance coverage.

He said LePage’s order in March to remove a labor mural from the Department of Labor’s headquarters was another jab at workers.

The bill’s timing — and LePage’s decision to hire an out-of-state lawyer to help the state with contract negotiations — indicate to Quint that there’s more to it than the service fee.

“These are all negotiated items,” he said. “They are in the contract right now. (LePage) is using the Legislature to remove it as opposed to coming to the bargaining table.”

Also, Quint said, the way the amendment is written, it would eliminate the state’s role in collecting union dues even from members. That would leave the union to chase down payments from members or set up some sort of bank withdrawal system, he said.

“He wants to go against 40 or 50 years of practice across the country,” Quint said. “It’s absolutely outlandish.”

The service fee for nonmembers dates to 2003, when the provision was put into union contracts for new hires only.

It became a contentious topic within the union two years later, when it was expanded to apply to current employees. Workers were told that, as of July 1, 2005, they had to join the union or pay a portion of union dues. If they didn’t, they could be fired.

In June 2005, a group calling itself unfairshare.org formed when an estimated 250 state workers banded together to fight the service fee. Of those, 20 state workers — including Locke — sued the union in state and federal courts to fight the provision. They enlisted the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation to provide legal counsel.

A year later, the MSEA agreed to lower the fee to address concerns raised by the workers that some of the money was going toward the union’s organizing efforts.

Although the union maintained that it had the right to direct nonmembers’ money toward organizing, it lowered the fee “as a show of good faith” while lawsuits challenging it were pending.

In 2007, a state law was passed to remove the threat of firing. It also authorized the state to take the service fees from paychecks without employees’ consent.

Winsor’s amendment to L.D. 309 would end that practice, and allow the union not to represent any employee who doesn’t pay the fee, at least in the grievance process or a workplace dispute with management.

Quint said the service fee has been in state law since the 1970s, but the union couldn’t get it into contracts until Baldacci became governor. He said workers can apply to opt out of the fair share for religious reasons or take the union to arbitration to fight it. About 2,100 state workers whose positions are covered by the MSEA now pay the fee.

Hundreds of other state workers who are covered by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees also pay it. They work primarily in state correctional facilities or are mental health workers, said Matt Schlobohm of the Maine AFL-CIO.

He said, “It feels like this is about Gov. LePage pursuing an anti-worker agenda.”

Thursday’s public hearing is expected to draw a large crowd of union members. Quint said that while private-sector workers wouldn’t be affected by the proposed legislation, they fear that future action could change their rights as well.

“You come after one, you come after all of us,” he said.

On the other side, Locke said he’s not sure whether he will be able to get time off from work to testify Thursday. But he welcomes the possibility of change.

“I never really had any issues with MSEA,” he said. “They never really bothered me until they decided they wanted some money.” 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

[email protected] ilding, Augusta