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August 31, 2013

Maine Voices: Overall economy benefits when workers have opportunity to organize

By REP. ANDREW MASON

TOPSHAM - As Labor Day nears, remember that we need to hear the voices of workers. Their on-the-ground perspective is vital to the fairness, safety and success of workplaces.

We should celebrate the right to collective bargaining. Instead, it is under assault by those embracing an extreme, anti-worker agenda. This agenda calls for so-called "right-to-work" legislation, measures that undercut collective bargaining efforts and cause wages and benefits to deteriorate.

In states with these measures -- more correctly called "right-to-work-for-less" laws -- the average worker makes $1,500 a year less than their counterparts elsewhere, a higher percentage of jobs are in low-wage occupations and the workplace death rate is more than one-third higher.

Maine must not join this race to the bottom.

Workers benefiting from collective bargaining agreements should pay their fair share of the negotiation costs. "Right-to-work" laws encourage free riders to weaken unions -- the same organizations that fought for the minimum wage, Social Security, workplace anti-discrimination laws and safety standards.

I am where I am today in part because of unions. After high school, I was fortunate to be a summer worker at the paper mill that employed my father.  My starting union wages were significantly better than those my peers earned in retail and other summer jobs. I earned enough during the summers to pay for a large portion of my college expenses. I graduated almost debt-free because of my union job, an opportunity that is increasingly rare today.  

Now I work as an employment lawyer, fighting to protect the jobs and opportunities of Mainers, most of whom do not belong to unions.

Opponents of unions paint a picture of today's employers as enlightened by the past and understanding that a happy employee is a good and productive employee. According to this line of thinking, unions are unnecessary because it's in the employer's best interest to pay a good wage and treat employees fairly.

Unfortunately, while a great many employers do recognize these values and prosper because of it, it is not the story for many working Mainers today. We see this in the stagnant wages that most workers endure even as corporate profits are at an all-time high. We see it in the business plans that push low-wage workers toward public assistance.

I serve on the Legislature's Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. Union folks are in the committee room, providing some balance to the army of lobbyists representing every business interest imaginable and the LePage appointees who continually tell us we can't pass bills helping the middle class -- "because, darn it, that's the job of the private sector."

It's wrong to suggest that the balance of power in Augusta tips toward unions or the working class. Busy workers struggling to make ends meet are fortunate to have unions standing up for the interests of all workers, even those not in unions.  

The same agenda trying to push Maine into the "right-to-work" fold is responsible for other disturbing developments in the Legislature.

We've seen vetoes of measures to move closer to a living wage and to strengthen workers' compensation insurance benefits for employees injured on the job. There was even a veto of bipartisan legislation that included workplace development initiatives supported by the business, education and labor communities.

We've seen efforts to put for-profit enterprises before the good of our public schools. We should be helping our classrooms be the best learning environments they can be -- for the good of our children, communities and economy.

We've seen tax breaks for the wealthy come at the expense of working families. These ideologically driven cuts caused the budget gap that would have led to massive property tax hikes had the Legislature not passed its compromise budget. They also led, in the previous Legislature, to a Republican-led push to break promises to our public employees.

This must stop.

Maine was one of just three states to lose jobs between 2012 and 2013. While other New England states added jobs, Maine slid backward during the LePage administration. Maine lags in its recovery from the recession.

It's because this administration's focus is on old, tired and disproven theories of wealth creation. True and sustainable economic growth is found in the states that invest in the future -- in their workers and in education.

Let's recognize our workforce's role in our prosperity -- not just on Labor Day but every day.

Rep. Andrew Mason, D-Topsham, serves on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. He practices employment law at Reben, Benjamin & March.





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