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State Employees Union Could Drop ‘Fair Share’ Fees In Exchange For 6 Percent Raise

Maine Public file
MSEA Director Rodney Hiltz (arms raised, left) leads workers in a chant the State House in Augusta in July 2017, during the state government shutdown.

Since his first day in office, Gov. Paul LePage has been a critic of organized labor, and has specifically targeted state worker unions. LePage has long tried to pass legislation to stop unions from charging membership fees to workers who choose not to join — and he’s taking a new approach that appears to be working.

The state’s largest state employee union, the Maine State Employees Association, has agreed to send a new two-year contract to members of its four largest bargaining units for ratification. It would increase wages by 6 percent, but would also eliminate mandatory union fees for state workers who choose not to join the union.

That so-called fair share provision generates funds to cover the union’s cost of collective bargaining, but also provides money to pay for lobbying the Legislature.

In a weekly appearance on Bangor radio station WVOM, LePage announced that he is seeking through negotiation what he has not been able to achieve through legislation.

“To have to pay extortion money to have a job is really bad and is not the American way, and so that is how I feel about it. And I am trying to buy our way out of it, basically,” he said.

Over 9,000 state workers are covered by the tentative contract. MSEA officials say they agreed to send the proposal to workers for a vote because without the provisions eliminating fair share, the best LePage would offer was 1 percent over two years.

But the smaller union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, which represents over 900 state correctional officers and mental health employees, rejected the fair share elimination. LePage says he believes those workers wanted to accept the proposal.

“My understanding was that the local negotiators for the union were in favor of doing the same as the MSEA did. It was the out-of-state bigwigs that said no,” he says.

“That is absolutely false,” says AFSCME’S Jim Durkin, directly contradicting LePage.

Durkin says it was not union staff but individual workers serving on the negotiating team that made the decision.

“This tentative agreement was negotiated with the committee comprised of AFSCME members working in corrections and mental health,” he says.

Durkin says he is proud of the committee for taking a long-term view of keeping the union strong instead of agreeing to a short-term pay raise.

Efforts to weaken unions at the bargaining table have been going on for some time in the U.S. says University of Maine labor historian Charles Scontras.

“This is all taking place in a wider conservative climate since the 1970s,” he says. “It’s been nothing but concessionary bargains, givebacks, calls for changes in work rules.”

Scontras notes that there is a case from California pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that could help LePage achieve his goal, if the court votes to take it up. It challenges the fair share provisions of a teacher’s union as unconstitutional.

The two Maine unions, however, won’t be able to wait for that case to play out, as both the MSEA and AFSCME contracts need to be put before the rank and file for a vote by Aug. 30.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.