AUGUSTA – Lawmakers debated a bill on Monday morning that would give Maine’s state workers freedom to choose whether they want to belong to the Maine State Employees Association (MSEA) – a not-for-profit corporation also known as the state workers union.
L.D. 786, An Act To Ensure the Voluntary Membership of Public Employees in Unions, introduced by Rep. Lawrence E. Lockman (R-Amherst), would protect state workers’ paychecks from mandatory wage garnishments and end a controversial 6-year-old experiment whereby Maine serves as a collections agent for MSEA.
“I’m here today to speak on behalf of the disenfranchised minority of state workers who are forced to pay fees to a union that doesn’t care about them,” said Lockman. “I’m also here on behalf of the state workers who are disenchanted with their union but are too afraid to speak out.”
Lockman told fellow members of the Joint Standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development (LCRED) that his bill was about giving state workers the choice to join or not join the MSEA. While union officials stated repeatedly during the hearing that no workers in Maine are forced to join a union, Lockman pointed out that state workers have no choice in the matter because the state garnishes their wages preemptively in order to pay MSEA dues and fees.
“My bill offers paycheck protection for those state workers,” said Lockman. He said his bill would bar the MSEA from levying so-called “agency fees” against state workers who decline to purchase collective bargaining services from the MSEA.
Rep. Teresea M. Hayes (D-Buckfield), the lone Democratic co-sponsor of Lockman’s bill, testified in favor of select aspects of the bill. She said she supports the provision of the bill that would prevent the state from serving as MSEA’s collections agent, but she does not support requirements that MSEA represent all workers and hold annual elections.
“What I don’t support is either party – either management or labor – coming to the Legislature in order to circumvent collective bargaining,” said Hayes.
The MSEA began collecting agency fees from the state workers under the Baldacci administration. In 2007, the Legislature transformed the state into a collections agent for MSEA because many state workers refused to pay dues voluntarily.
Hayes said she was a member of the Legislature when it voted to have the state collect dues and fees for MSEA. “I voted for that legislation,” she said. “And I was wrong.”
“We shouldn’t be collecting those dues – that’s not our job,” said Hayes. “I would suggest amending the bill to repeal mandatory wage garnishment,” she said. “That would be an appropriate remedy.”
John Butera, senior economic advisor to Governor Paul R. LePage, said L.D. 786 should pass because it is unjust to force state workers to fund union activities they may disagree with.
“The Governor believes it is wrong to mandate union membership as a condition of employment,” said Butera. “Public unions should succeed on the basis of their own merit,” he said.
The MSEA has collected $750,000 in agency fees alone. That money frees up union resources which can then be spent on a host of activities including lobbying and political campaigns.
Democrats and labor union representatives turned out in force to speak in favor of mandatory wage garnishment for state workers who decline union membership.
Reps. Joshua R. Plante (D-Berwick) and Stanley Byron Short, Jr. (D-Pittsfield) both spoke in opposition to L.D. 786.
Plante called the bill “a political act” and said it is intended to eliminate unions. “The goal here is to abolish unions,” said Plante.
Short, a longtime union organizer who called himself something of a “union boss,” said the decrease of union membership nationwide is due to “union busting bills” and “corporate greed.”
“It is my belief that this anti-union legislation was introduced because there are a small number of legislators who believe organized labor is responsible for Maine’s economic troubles,” said Short.
Timothy L. Belcher, general counsel for MSEA, also testified in support of continuing the status quo. He defended the practice of collecting agency fees from non-member state workers citing Supreme Court precedent.
Belcher said MSEA spends the dues of members on a variety of activities including political activities at the state level.
In response to a question from LCRED member Rep. Amy Volk (R-Scarborough) about the amount of money MSEA collects in fees, Belcher declined to supply this information, stating that it was proprietary information.
“We’re not inclined to provide proprietary information about what we do,” said Belcher.
The MAINE WIRE, however, has acquired documents which show exactly how much money the MSEA collects per year in both dues and agency fees. According to these documents, mandatory agency fees collected by the state for the MSEA in a recent year comprised approximately 27 percent of total dues and fees collected.
Belcher said MSEA has in the past made exceptions for state workers who decline to pay agency fees for religious reasons. For example, he said MSEA has made an exception for a non-member who wrote an essay objecting to paying fees based on his belief if Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism.
Belcher said people must do more than write a good essay in order to escape MSEA’s wage state-abetted wage garnishment. “We require them to be sincere,” said Belcher.
While the MSEA’s representatives hotly opposed L.D. 786, several state employees spoke out in favor of the bill and expressed grievances with the union.
Linda M. Anthony, an employee of the Maine Turnpike Authority, said she pays $600 and does not believe she is receiving proper representation for the money the state takes from her paycheck each week. She said her trouble with MSEA began after she requested a vote count from a local chapter election.
“I was bullied at meetings by MSEA agents, I had three nails stuck in my tires, I was blocked from being able to log in to work station which resulted in disciplinary action,” said Anthony. “I worked in a hostile workplace for over a year,” she said.
While others at the hearing lauded the efforts of MSEA and the Maine Labor Relations Board (MLRB) to resolve grievances like Anthony’s, she said that system is broken.
“You won’t be heard unless you can afford to hire your own attorney,” said Anthony. She said last year she paid more than $800 to an attorney to represent her against MSEA because MLRB would not do so effectively.
She said fighting the MSEA and MLRB for representation costs workers weeks of unpaid wages and can eventually cost them their jobs.
“I can never terminate MSEA from being my agent, but you could give me that right by supporting this bill,” said Anthony. “I ask that you support us and not be influenced by the unions,” she said.
Lockman’s bill will be the subject of a work session on Friday. He said he thinks proponents of his bill made a more compelling case than the MSEA and its representatives.
“My impression was that the other side has a hard time making a compelling case that people should have to pay for something they don’t want and didn’t ask for,” said Lockman. “It’s an even further stretch for them to say the state should be collecting money to sustain this corporate monopoly.”
“My colleagues who vote against this common sense, bipartisan proposal do so at their own risk,” he said. “Voters will remember how they’ve voted.”