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Politics

Maine House Democrats - and Some Republicans - Reject 'Right-to-Work' Bill

AUGUSTA, Maine - There's been another setback for supporters of "right-to-work" legislation in Maine, as the House today rejected a GOP-led proposal that would have ended a requirement that workers in unionized shops who choose not to join the union pay so-called "fair share" fees.The debate in the House labored on for more than an hour, but, in the end, Republican Rep. Lawrence Lockman's arguments in favor of his right-to-work bill failed to sway Democrats who opposed the measure - or, for that matter, 10 Republicans who also voted against it.

The 90-52 vote is the latest setback for the GOP-led effort to exempt workers employed by companies with union collective bargaining agreements from paying so-called fair share representation fees.

Rep. Lawrence Lockman is fond of citing the robust job creation statistics that are found in right-to-work states. But the Amherst Republican says the argument for his bill lies in the American principles established by the Founding Fathers. "If employees want to individually negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment they should be free to do so in a free country."

Freedom was repeatedly invoked during Lockman's defense of LD 489, a bill that would have Maine join more than 20 other states that do not require employers to collect representation fees from workers who choose not to join a union. Unions fought for the fair share provision to cover their own costs of representing employees who prefer not to join the union. But Lockman says that's simply unfair.

"No American should be forced to buy something they don't want and didn't ask for as a condition of employment," Lockman said. "And, again, there is nothing in federal law that requires unions to bargain on behalf of workers who choose not to join or pay the union for its services. Monopoly bargaining is entirely optional."

That claim brought Rep. Ralph Tucker, a Brunswick Democrat, to his feet during floor debate. The retired Maine District Court judge accused Lockman of taking a federal court decision out of context in order to support his statements. Tucker says state and federal law recognizes that there are costs in a union workplace associated with representing workers whether they choose to join the union or not.

"The most efficient and stable way to do this is a service fee check-off on monthly paychecks of a few dollars," Tucker said. "Such a dues check-off is a routine feature of American labor relations - almost universally agreed to by employers and unions."

For years, Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans have been trying to pass a right-to-work bill which they say will grow the economy, create jobs, increase household incomes and lower unemployment.

"Wow, if this bill had the potential to do all of these things, we'd all support it, right?" said Rep. Erin Herbig. "But that is not the case." Herbig is a Belfast Democrat and the House chair of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, which divided along party lines over the bill. Herbig challenges Lockman's facts used in support of his bill, and says it would actually be a job killer in Maine.

"This bill has nothing to do with right-to-work, it does just the opposite. It undermines workers' rights," Herbig said. "What this bill would afford is an opportunity for low road employers to offer even lower wages and fewer benefits to their employees. Maine workers deserve better than becoming part of this misguided race to the bottom."

"I'd like to quickly look at the race to the bottom talking point," said Joel Stetkis, a Canaan Republican. Stetkis, who serves on Herbig's Committee, said national job statistics refute her claims about the negative effects of right-to-work policies.

"The reality is that three of the four fastest-growing state economies of 2014 are right-to-work states, while at the same time, Maine remains a forced union state that is slowly crawling its way from already being at the bottom for decades," Stetkis said.

Lockman's bill was rejected 90-52, with 10 House Republicans crossing party lines to vote against it. The measure faces additional votes in the House and Senate.