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Maine Republicans Try Again to Push Through 'Right-to-Work' Legislation

A.J. Higgins
Sen. John Patrick, a union papermaker who is opposed to "right-to-work" legislation, addresses the media Thursday in Augusta.

AUGUSTA, Maine - Republicans are once again trying to move a so-called "right-to-work" bill through the Legislature. Their goal is to put an end to a long-standing requirement that public and private sector workers in a unionized shops must either join the union or pay representation fees as a condition of employment. Democrats say the measure is an assault on organized labor in Maine and will ultimately drive wages down. But GOP lawmakers say the change would attract new businesses to Maine.

When Democrats held majorities in both the Maine House and Senate two years ago, GOP Rep. Lawrence Lockman of Amherst tried to get right-to-work bills through the Legislature. Now that his party controls the Senate and the House has fewer Democrats, Lockman assesses the chances of success this way: "Better than they were last time."

But even when the Republicans controlled the Maine House, Senate and governor's office in 2011, they were not able to push a right-to-work bill through the Legislature.

Credit A.J. Higgins / MPBN
GOP Rep. Lawrence Lockman, of Amherst, is proposing "right-to-work" legislation.

Lockman will try again. He has two bills that would set aside mandatory union membership and the requirement for so-called fair-share fees collected from workers who don't want to join, but still benefit from collective bargaining agreements.

One measure applies to public and private employees; the other is aimed exclusively at public employees. Lockman says the experience in other right-to-work states should bolster the case for both of his bills.

"The commerce department has stats showing that families in right-to-work states, on average, have $2,000 more in disposable income," Lockman said. "One example of that would be Connecticut which is a forced unionism state, cost of living is much higher than in Tennessee which is a right-to-work state. So when you adjust for that the actual take-home wages are actually higher."

The Wall Street Journal has published analyses that support Lockman's contention that private sector employment grows more quickly in right-to-work states. David Clough, of the Maine chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, says right-to-work states are particularly attractive to larger employers.

"It's believed to have an economic enhancement to it," Clough said. "One part of that is signaling to companies the approach that Maine wants to take in becoming more of a free-enterprise oriented state and one that would be welcoming of businesses."

Gov. Paul LePage is fond of telling a story about a lunch meeting with an out-of-state CEO who told him that he would relocate to Maine in a heartbeat if it were a right-to-work state. But despite these claims, Democratic state S

says these right-to-work advocates have their math wrong. "It's a waste of the citizens' tax dollars to continue to bring the right-to-work to Maine because it's not going to pass," he said.

Patrick is a member of the Legislature's Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, and also a union papermaker. He remains convinced that the right-to-work movement is fueled by a conservative coalition that is more concerned with maximizing corporate profits than raising the standard of living for workers. He says Republicans and Democrats will be united to kill Lockman's bills again because they represent a major step backward.

"The middle class was formed by unions bringing wages, benefits and working conditions, and what are we asking to do now? Go back to the 20s?" Patrick said. "That's the wrong way to go. That does not lift up anyone except for the 1 percent and corporations."

"It takes away choice," says Rachel Sherman, of the York County Maine State Employees Local 1297. Sherman says Lockman's bills would have the de facto effect of destroying a collective bargaining unit. "If they make it so you can't join, then nobody has a choice to join or to organize."

The bills have yet to be scheduled for a hearing before the Committee.