AUGUSTA — Negotiators for the largest state employees union have agreed to a new two-year contract that would increase wages by 6 percent while also giving Republican Gov. Paul LePage a long-sought victory in his effort to eliminate mandatory union fees for workers in jobs represented by unions.

Under the contract, which will go out to members of the Maine State Employees Association, Local 1989, for a ratification vote on Aug. 30, state workers who choose not to join the union would not have to pay the fees that are collected to cover the union’s cost of collective bargaining and other services, including lobbying the Legislature.

The MSEA represents about 9,500 workers and is the largest of two unions that represent state and other public-sector employees. State government workers represented by MSEA are divided into nearly a dozen bargaining units, each with its own contract in the executive, judicial and legislative branches.

MSEA Executive Director Rod Hiltz said Monday that it will be up to union members to decide if they want to ratify the contract. He added that without the concession of eliminating the mandatory fees, the best pay increase LePage would offer was 1 percent over the two-year contract, which already has expired.

“We fought back a slew of take-backs and we were happy we are able to deliver decent wage increases in this contract,” Hiltz said. “Our elected union negotiating team decided to accept the 6 percent increase over the fee for service at this time.”

The agreement does not apply to all of the bargaining units MSEA represents – the people who work for the state court system are not included – but it does cover the largest block of its members, those who work under four contracts within the executive branch of state government, Hiltz said. He also noted the contract agreement has no bearing on the state law that governs the issue.

Negotiators for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents about 900 state correctional officers and employees of the state’s two secure mental health hospitals, rejected LePage’s offer last week in favor of keeping the mandatory fees and accepting a 1 percent pay increase.

“We are incredibly proud our negotiators decided the strength of our union was more important in the long run than higher wages,” said Jim Durkin, the union’s Boston-based regional director of legislation, communication and political action. He added that with the support of Maine lawmakers, AFSCME had rejected LePage’s broader push to change state law.

“And we didn’t feel it right to accept that change as part of a contract,” Durkin said. AFSCME members will vote to ratify their new contract by Aug. 30, as well.

LePage has made repeated efforts to change the state law that enables unions, including those in the private sector, to collect fees from non-members. In 2015, the Legislature rejected a Le Page-backed bill that would have repealed parts of the law and would have seen Maine join 28 other states that have what union foes call “right-to-work” laws on the books. The Legislature also rejected a similar bill during the session that ended this month.

Hiltz said the union still strongly disagrees with LePage on his push to change the Maine law that allows unions to charge a fee for the services they provide to even non-union workers.

“The governor was intent on trying to take away the voice of the workers since Day 1, legislatively speaking,” Hiltz said. “We fought those off in the legislature by convincing both Democrats and Republicans and some independents that that issue belonged at the negotiating table.”

He said the contract agreement just reached proved that point. “Our negotiating team members felt this was the right time to eliminate agency fees for a decent wage increase when they have said no to it in the past,” Hiltz said.

LePage has had a tumultuous relationship with the state’s employee unions, including a proposal to privatize parts of government or to eliminate hundreds vacant state government positions his administration has refused to fill.

A LePage proposal to outsource the jobs of about 15 state park employees this year also was rejected by lawmakers.

David Heidrich, a spokesman for LePage’s Department of Administration and Financial Services, confirmed the agreement with MSEA Local 1989, including two 3 percent pay hikes, the first in 2018 and the second in 2019.

“The reason for our proposal is a simple one,” Heidrich wrote in an email. “The LePage administration does not believe public servants should be forced to have a service fee deducted from their pay. The implementation of ‘fair share’ during the (Gov. John) Baldacci administration was and remains poor public policy that penalizes non-member employees and acts as an unnecessary hindrance to our recruitment and retention efforts.”

Hiltz said MSEA members will learn contract details this week, and that if the contract is ratified by Aug. 30, members will not lose merit or longevity pay incentives.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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