Bill to allow public employee strikes shot down by labor committee

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The Maine Legislature’s Committee on Labor and Housing voted not to move LD 555, a bill that would have given public employees the right to strike, out of committee during a work session on January 19. A motion of “ought not to pass” was supported by 9 of the 10 committee members present.

The committee was scheduled to hear testimony on the bill during a public hearing earlier the same morning, but Rep. Mike Sylvester (D-Portland), the committee chair and sponsor of the bill, asked that LD 555 be moved directly to work session and that other committee members vote against it.

Sylvester refused to go on record with a vote and removed himself from the session before the vote was taken.

“When I stand with 250 state workers and they say this is their number one priority, I will not go on the record for that,” Sylvester said.

“With a cry of ‘no justice, no peace,’ we’ll see you all next time,” Sylvester concluded before exiting the committee’s meeting.

Had the bill become law, public sector employees – including municipal and county employees, state and legislative employees, as well as workers at universities, academies, and community colleges – would have been allowed to strike. The bill also would have given certain judicial employees the right to strike, provided their duties did not include protecting public safety or ensuring individual procedural due process rights are upheld. 

The bill also required that public employers receive notice of the start and end date for strikes. It also allowed employee organizations or public employers to call for emergency bargaining within three days of the start of the strike and prevented striking public employees from being permanently replaced.

Submitted testimony was almost entirely against the bill. Written testimony against the bill was provided on behalf of the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System, the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine School Management Association and Maine Policy Institute.

Samantha Warren, Director of Government and Community Relations at the University of Maine System, argued in her written testimony that giving public employees the right to strike would mean the school’s students “would bear the brunt of harm” in the event of a strike.

“A strike could threaten the health and safety of our students (especially those in our residence halls), and prevent them from completing their coursework on time, jeopardizing their financial aid and their ability to graduate on-time, thus increasing their debt and delaying their career readiness,” Warren wrote in her testimony.

Warren also stated that the state could end up refunding tuition and room and board payments if strikes disrupt students’ ability to receive an education. Robert Nadeau, who provided written testimony for the Maine Community College System, made similar arguments.

“A strike would mean missed classes, and for some students such as in nursing, even a few missed classes would leave the students unable to progress toward their degrees. Students could be forced to look to private, for-profit institutions for the completion of their degrees, delaying their entry into the workforce and increasing student debt,” Nadeau wrote.

Testifying on behalf of the legislative committees of the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine Schools Superintendent Association, Steven Bailey argued teacher strikes would “create chaos and uncertainty.”

“It is indisputable that strikes severely disrupt the education of children and the lives of their families. A strike would break the bond of trust we believe most teachers work very hard to create,” Bailey wrote.

Kate Dufour, testifying against the bill on behalf of the Maine Municipal Association, argued the list of municipal employees exempted from the bill is not expansive enough.

The bill exempts municipal employees, like police, firefighters, and other types of first responders, from the right to strike. But Dufour argued that other municipal services, such as the maintenance of wastewater and roads during winter storms, are also “necessary for the protection of public health and wellbeing.”

Nick Murray, policy analyst for the Maine Policy Institute, also provided testimony against the bill. Murray noted the difference between public and private employees, and argued that taxpayers would be ultimately “on the hook” for the costs of disruptions to public services caused by public employee strikes.

“If the employees of a private company go on strike, consumers can shop elsewhere during the strike. If government workers go on strike, Mainers who need to interact with a healthcare facility, licensing agency, or public school would have no other outlet to receive these crucial services,” he wrote.

During its January 19 work session, the committee also heard from Department of Labor (DOL) Commissioner Laura Fortman about a data breach that occurred on the agency’s website the previous day.

According to Fortman, the breach occurred while the agency was uploading 1099-G tax forms, which are distributed to individuals who have collected unemployment insurance, to their website. During a 90-minute period before the agency realized the documents were uploading incorrectly, individuals who logged onto the system were able to see personal information belonging to claimants other than themselves.

According to Fortman, 117 people who logged onto the system during that time were able to see information for other people. She said 146 people had their information, including their name, address, the amount of unemployment they had collected, and the last four digits of their social security number, viewed by another unemployment recipient.

According to a press release from the DOL, “documents for 29 of the 146 people only included the individuals [sic] name and mailing address.”

DOL has already alerted the Social Security Administration, the Maine Office of Information Technology, the division of Risk Management in the office of State Controller and the Attorney General’s office. It is communicating directly with individuals whose information was impacted.

The agency is aware of whose information was viewed and will provide credit monitoring to those who were affected. The agency is also contacting those who viewed information belonging to other claimants to ensure it is not used inappropriately.

Fortman said that in the future, the agency will take the system offline while it is uploading documents.

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