AUGUSTA – A spirited pro-union rally preceded a tense public hearing Thursday on a bill that would limit the ability of unions to collect fees from nonunion state workers.

Supporters of the bill say it’s a matter of fairness to the 25 percent of state workers who don’t join labor unions because they disagree with the political views of the Maine State Employees Association.

Daniel Locke, a state worker who isn’t in a union, told the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee that he believes unions should be apolitical.

“The labor unions, as I see it, are so intertwined with politics I don’t believe I could support any fee,” he said.

Opponents of the bill say it’s not fair for nonunion workers to benefit from union contracts and not be required to pay at least a portion of union dues.

“It is only fair that everyone who benefits shares in the costs,” Robert Ruhlin, a retired Department of Transportation worker, said in written comments to the committee. “You can’t amend your way out of the fact that L.D. 309 shifts the entire cost of negotiating a contract onto just the union members in a bargaining unit.”

Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, the bill’s sponsor, has offered an amendment to spell out his intention to focus the bill on state workers and the service fee.

The amendment would allow workers to decide whether to pay the fee, and would require the state to get written permission from workers to deduct it from their paychecks. The union would not be required to represent an employee in a grievance case if he or she refused to pay the fee.

A committee vote on the bill is scheduled Monday.

Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, said she has heard from many state workers who don’t want to be required to pay the fee, which is 54 percent of full union dues. That’s about $4.90 a week.

“It’s a matter of principle on their part,” she said. “They do not want to have those fees taken out.”

The “fair share” provision is part of the contract between the state and state workers. A law passed in 2007 allows the state to automatically deduct a portion of union dues from the paychecks of nonunion workers, even if they object. The service fee was first added to the contract in 2003 for new state employees. It was expanded two years later to apply to the entire work force.

Because all state workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements, regardless of whether they are union members, the Maine State Employees Association collects the fee to cover costs it incurs in negotiating the contracts. A group of state workers fought the provision in court for years, but was unable to overturn the contract language.

Around noon Thursday, a crowd that Capitol Security estimated at more than 600 people packed the State House Hall of Flags to express opposition to L.D. 309.

Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert whipped up the crowd with his opposition to the bill.

“Passing this bill will be nothing short of irresponsible,” Gilbert said. “Governor, who was born in my hometown, if it is about people before politics, these are the people you need to be supporting.”

Matt Schlobohm, executive director of Maine’s AFL-CIO, said Gov. Paul LePage is pushing for the bill while he’s conducting negotiations with state workers, whose contracts expire June 30.

“The fact is, Gov. LePage was elected to work on creating jobs,” Schlobohm said. “Instead, he’s attacking working people.”

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor wants to end the practice of having the state withdraw union fees from paychecks. She said the bill, as amended, is focused solely on that issue.

“The state should not be a collection agency,” she said. “If someone should want to join a union, they should have every right to do so. But if you force a worker to pay for a service they are not interested in receiving, it’s not fair share. It’s unfair share.”

At the rally, speeches focused on LePage, with some in the crowd wearing “61 percent” stickers — a reference to the percentage of people who voted for someone other than LePage in November’s election — and a brief chant of “Sixty-one-percent! Sixty-one-percent!”

Protesters held signs that read: “Next time vote them out!,” “Solidarity” and “It’s a war on the workers.”

The steps in the Hall of Flags were filled with an alphabet soup of union members representing mill workers, nurses and firefighters. They chanted “Kill the bill!” and “Workers united will never be defeated.”

The Rev. Mike Seavey said the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland is officially opposing the bill, saying “at its core, all legislation should be about human dignity.” He also referred to the attorney who has been retained by LePage to help conduct negotiations with state labor unions, who is being paid $295 an hour.

“If the administration is going to hire a negotiator from New York City at exorbitant Manhattan attorney rates, then our public employees have the ability and the right to organize themselves and present their contract expectations with mutual support,” he said.

Later, the labor committee took hours of testimony for and against the measure.

During the hearing, lawmakers sniped at each other. Rep. Tim Driscoll, D-Westbrook, criticized legislative leaders for allowing the bill to “take such an unorthodox and circuitous route” to the hearing so late in the session.

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.

Assistant House Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, tried to interrupt Driscoll to ask if he had a question or was just making a statement.

“I would like to be at my daughter’s class night tonight!” Driscoll yelled as he pounded the table.

Lawmakers on both sides testified on the bill, as did lawyers on both sides. As a result, members of the public who came to testify had to wait until after 7:30 p.m. to get a chance to speak.

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

[email protected]