The state of Maine currently prevents employees who work in the public-sector from using a common instrument in the organized labor toolbox — the ability to strike. However, the law that prevents public-sector employees from going on strike could change when the legislature reconvenes to consider emergency legislation and all other bills that were carried over into the second session.
LD 900 would give public sector employees the right to strike with limited exceptions. The only public-sector employees who would be prevented from striking are those whose job it is to protect public safety, namely police officers and firefighters.
According to the bill, a union would be required to conduct an election to determine if a majority of its members want to go on strike. If the union members vote in the affirmative, the union must provide the employer with a notice of the intent to strike and must describe the date the strike will begin and when it will end. Either the employer or the union would be able to call for emergency bargaining within three days before the strike is intended to begin.
Labor organizations argue that the bill would level the playing field for public sector workers because the right to strike is currently protected in the private sector for Mainers. It should be acknowledged that employees’ rights in the public and private sectors are fundamentally different, and for good reason. First and foremost, public-sector employees’ paychecks are issued by the government, funded by taxpayers. In contrast, private sector employees are typically paid by for-profit organizations whose primary goal is to increase profits.
If the legislature opts to pass LD 900, it could be a costly endeavor for taxpayers, and it would undoubtedly give public unions unfair leverage in negotiations. While this bill excludes employees who protect public safety, there are several other governmental functions that would be hindered if public employees are granted the right to strike, negatively affecting taxpayers and the public at-large.
For instance, if teachers decided to strike, it would certainly cause undue burden on parents who may not be able to make the necessary arrangements, logistically or financially. Students would be robbed of their education, potentially for an unspecified amount of time. Similarly, if an entire municipal building closed due to a strike, residents may find it difficult to register their car or to vote.
In contrast, the consequences of a strike in the private sector creates a burden for the employer and largely does not affect the public. If the employees of a private company go on strike, consumers can shop elsewhere during the strike. If government workers go on strike, civilians have no other outlet to receive services.
As of 2014, only 15 states permitted public-sector employees to strike whereas 35 states prohibited it. This isn’t a coincidence — the cost of a public sector strike is both monetarily harmful and burdensome to the public.
For example, a Los Angeles school district lost $15 million in the first 24 hours of striking at the beginning of 2019. By the end of a weeklong strike, the school district had lost $125 million in state resources. Since municipalities in Maine already argue that their budgets are constrained by limited resources, it would be unwise to levy further financial stress by allowing public workers to strike. In addition to the issue of financial stress, the Maine Municipal Association had this to say during the public hearing in opposition to LD 900:
“…It does not take long for citizens to notice, and become frustrated, by delays in core local government functions such as paving and traffic management, vehicle registration, construction permitting, and school operations.
The important role of local government in serving the general public comes to a halt when public employees strike. A public right to strike may constitute an unconstitutional delegation of government powers, transferring to the striking worker and/or union all legislative, executive, and judicial power. A strike can paralyze a town or city, removing decision making authority from the elected representatives of the public and, by extension, the public itself.”
In other words, it would be irresponsible for lawmakers to turn over the powers they’re entrusted with by allow public-sector employees to strike. The success of a labor strike in the public sector primarily depends on how harmful the shortage of labor is for a municipality and its residents, giving labor unions an unfair advantage in negotiations with an employer and the public.
In addition to the burden LD 900 creates for citizens, there are other factors to consider. Government workers were paid approximately 16 percent more than those in the private sector in 2017. When only unionized entities in both sectors were examined, unionized public employees still realized a paycheck that was 10 percent larger than the private sector. Thus, public workers are already faring relatively well without the right to strike in most states.
In regards to teachers, the Maine Legislature recently increased the minimum annual salary that teachers are required to be paid from $30,000 to $40,000 in Maine. According to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the median earnings for someone with a bachelor’s degree was $42,761 in 2017. The average salary for elementary and secondary teachers was $50,229 in 2016. Thus, the average teacher earns more than the median wage for an individual with a bachelor’s degree in Maine, and earns just under that amount when they first enter the workforce.
If the legislature chooses to pass LD 900 next session, it would need to be signed by Governor Mills to become law. She has already vetoed two pieces of legislation, LDs 240 and 1177, that would have given labor unions more power than they already have in negotiations. Because this bill is similar in nature, it’s not a stretch to think the governor may veto LD 900 if it makes it to her desk.
In any event, allowing public employees to strike would be disastrous for the state of Maine. Not only would strikes in the public sector frustrate the public, but they would also waste time and taxpayer dollars, robbing citizens of the services they pay for and rely on from government.