AUGUSTA — Labor unions in Maine have a long, proud history of protecting the rights of workers.

From confronting unsafe working conditions in the past to obtaining better wages for those they represent today, organized labor’s place in American history is secure.

At the same time, the strength of unions has always been dependent on the voluntary, not coerced, participation of its members.

That’s why many of my constituents, colleagues and I are dismayed by current state law that allows two unions representing Maine state workers to force those employees to pay the unions, and uses the state of Maine as a collection agency, regardless of whether the employees support the unions’ positions.

Even though this bill has been postponed until the next legislative session, it remains a worthwhile goal for Maine.

A little background: As recently as 2003, contracts between the state and the two unions that represent most state workers didn’t require union membership for existing workers.

However, the protocol did force new employees to pay union dues, or if they chose not to be represented by the union, to pay a service fee, also known as “fair share.”

In 2005, a last-minute addition to the state budget changed that requirement to force it on all employees, not only new hires. This rule was slipped into the partisan majority (as opposed to two-thirds) budget just hours before the final vote.

At the time, more than 3,000 state workers were not union members and no portion of their wages was going to the unions.

In 2007, then-Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland, backed another bill that eroded workers’ freedom even more.

While it made it illegal to fire a worker based on his or her refusal to pay service fees, it made that point moot by forcing the collection of union service fees from employees’ paychecks, using the state of Maine as a mechanism to collect those funds.

This is problematic on two fronts. First, it is not the role of state government to enforce the collection of money on behalf of a politically partisan organization that may or may not be supported by its members.

Second, this system is not fair to more than one-quarter of state union members who choose the service fee option. State government, which is not supposed to take a side on political issues, collects part of those workers’ wages without giving them a say in the process.

They surrender hundreds of dollars of their pay every year, a costly sum in this era of $4 gas and a sluggish economy.

The existence of this fundamentally unfair process is the reason I have sponsored an amendment to L.D. 309 that on Monday was unfortunately postponed by the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

This legislation would have ended the process of involuntary wage garnishment for union dues or service fees, unless those collection practices are agreed to during the collective bargaining process.

Far from being a radical departure, this would have simply returned the system to what it was before changes were made during the Baldacci administration. It would also give those workers who disagree with union leadership a voice in the process.

A union is only as strong as its support from its individual members. Mandatory participation weakens the organization that purports to represent those members.

I remain hopeful that the eventual passage of this amendment will go a long way in correcting an injustice to our state workers.

 

– Special to The Press Herald