February 13, 2011

Unions see threat in dues proposal

A bill eliminating fees for nonmember workers may get a boost from the GOP's ascendancy in Maine.

By Rebekah Metzler rmetzler@mainetoday.com
MaineToday Media State House Writer

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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