On October 23, Maine’s Legislative Council voted to advance LR 3100, a legislative request that would prohibit public employers from accessing “private communications” between unions and their members. The vote was divided along party lines, with six Democrats voting in favor and four Republicans voting in opposition.
The Legislative Council is a 10-member body comprised of legislative leadership that is charged with deciding which legislative requests are accepted to move forward for consideration by a legislative committee in the second session.
While LR 3100 might sound like well-meaning legislation, it would likely prevent public employers from accessing communications that are sent to and from their own email servers by employees and collective bargaining agents. LR 3100 appears to be connected to another union-related bill, LD 1451, which was passed before the legislature adjourned last session.
LD 1451 mandates that public employers give bargaining agents the right to use their email servers to communicate with union members about official bargaining agent matters. According to the language in LD 1451, “official bargaining agent matters” include but are not limited to communications about elections, meetings and social activities. In other words, the bargaining agent and union members are allowed to communicate via public servers about matters that are not related to the employee’s role in the workplace.
LD 1451 applies to individuals employed by the state, municipalities, the judicial branch, the University of Maine System, Maine Maritime Academy and the Maine Community College System. However, use of the email server may not create an “unreasonable burden” on the employer’s network capabilities or system administration. Put simply, lawmakers passed a bill that requires public employers to grant unions access to their email servers, and now want to prevent those employers from having access to those communications.
For one, public email servers should only be used for purposes that benefit the public good, not for communicating about union business. Second, the public employer, as the owner and gatekeeper of the email server, should have access to all incoming and outgoing communications from each email address on the server’s domain, and with limited exceptions, these communications should be subject to public records requests.
In their assessment of LR 3100, the Maine School Management Association said there is currently no expectation of privacy if the bargaining agent and union members communicate over an email system operated by a public school. They’re correct — anyone who uses an employer’s email server should not have an expectation of privacy regarding emails sent or received on that server. Hiding these exchanges from public employers does nothing to protect or serve the public. Instead, LR 3100 would give public-sector unions more unchecked power over public employers.
Maine’s public employers should have the ability to access and review emails that were sent or received by their employees on their work email server. If bargaining agents want to communicate with union members and expect privacy, they should pursue other avenues aside from the public employers’ email server.
Individuals who opt into union membership provide unions with plenty of information on how they can be contacted. The passage of LD 1451 in the first session also gave unions exclusive access to the personal information of public employees, regardless of whether or not they are members. Surely there is an alternative way for unions to effectively communicate with their members without using an email server paid for by taxpayers.