The MSEA-SEIU Local 1989, Maine’s second largest labor union, announced Friday that it has filed a prohibited practices labor complaint with the Maine Labor Relations Board against the administration of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.
“Today we filed charges of labor law violations over management’s continued refusal to come to the table and bargain,” said MSEA-SEIU Local 1989’s President Dean Staffieri, in an email to unionized state workers.
The complaint alleges that the Mills Administration, which is represented by Breena Bissell, Director of the Bureau of Human Resources, has engaged in bad-faith bargaining and used unlawful tactics.
MSEA-SEIU Local 1989 represents workers at the Community College System, Maine Maritime Academy, the Maine Turnpike Authority, Planned Parenthood of New England, and Maine’s Judicial Department. But state workers in the executive branch comprise by far the largest MSEA-SEIU Local 1989 bargaining unit, with over 5,000 members.
The MSEA is a juggernaut in Maine politics, with massive influence over policy decisions and a vaunted ability to turn out voters for Democratic Party politicians. In 2022, the state workers union endorsed and campaigned for almost every single Democratic legislative candidate.
The MSEA’s parent organization, the SEIU, is a major national political force whose considerable resources often find their way into the campaigns of Maine’s Democratic candidates, including Mills. Quantifying just how much the SEIU spends on politics is tricky, as much of the money flows through less-than-transparent channels. But some estimates peg the union’s 2020 spending at nearly $90 million. And the MSEA is known to be one of the top funders of left-wing 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 organizations in Maine, which perform various political activities and engage often in State House activism in Augusta.
But according to Staffieri’s email Friday to state employees, the happy marriage between the government union and the Democratic Party is on the rocks.
The root cause of the conflict appears to be Bissell’s allegedly illegal attempts to set the terms of a negotiation meeting.
“After the State’s chief bargainer, Breena Bissell, initially agreed to meet on Jan. 19th and Feb. 2nd, she then canceled both dates,” said Staffieri. “We offered two more dates, which she also refused.”
“While we made clear we would meet yesterday and communicated twice to attempt to set up logistics, Ms. Bissell made clear her demand that she and her team would not meet unless she was able to restrict the size of our negotiations team and exclude observers, including stating “I will pick your team for you”,” he said. “This behavior is unlawful and unacceptable.”
“We’re appalled by the behavior of the State’s chief negotiator and today filed charges of labor law violations for their failure to bargain in good faith,” said Staffieri.
Staffieri, and director of organizing, Angela MacWhinnie, met privately Wednesday evening with Bissell, a union member with knowledge of the negotiations told the Maine Wire. The member asked to remain anonymous as he was not authorized to speak publicly about union negotiations.
The member said Bissell reiterated the pre-conditions of meeting and raised the prospect of cancelling the Thursday meeting if those pre-conditions were not met. When president Staffieri told Bissell of the MLRB complaint that the union would issue, Bissell replied with a LePagesque, “You gotta do, what you gotta do.”
The union member who talked with the Maine Wire said rank-and-file members felt betrayed by the Mills administration.
“Mills has betrayed union members and we should rescind our endorsement retroactively,” they said.
“We endorsed her and we campaigned for her, and we regret doing that at this point,” the MSEA member said.
“We have buyer remorse for Janet,” they said.
Bissell, the hardball negotiator for the Mills administration, received compensation worth $151,440.46 in 2021, the most recent year for which state worker payroll records are available.
Union officials expect to win a judgement in their favor as the actions the Mills administration has taken to delay contract negotiations are, they say, clear and obvious labor law violations. However, the most the MLRB can do in practice is force a meeting between Bissell and the union.
Mills did not respond to an email asking her about the complaint. Bissell did not respond to an email asking her about the breakdown in negotiations and Mills’ level of involvement.
The appearance of a schism within the Maine Democratic coalition is a highly unusual for a political party that tends to keep its disputes in-house and under the radar.
The Democratic Party, rather than a group of voters who share a set of values or a vision for the proper role of government, is more akin to a hodgepodge of interests groups who successfully cooperate to get what they want out of government. For example, the environmentalist left often opposes what the blue-collar AFL-CIO trade union members support.
In this instance, it would appear that the MSEA-SEIU 1989 has designs on the surplus of federal money sloshing around state coffers. Before negotiations broke down, the union was poised to request a historic increase in compensation for state workers. But it seems Mills believes the money would be better spent on higher priorities, like mailing checks to voters or investing in Maine’s struggling public schools and hospitals.
Whether the rift between Maine’s top Democrat and the union that played a big role in getting her elected is a temporary spat or the start of a larger separation between state workers and the Democratic Party — only time will tell.
But a least one Republican official said he was sympathetic to the state workers struggles with Mills.
“I’ll be standing in solidarity with my union brothers and sisters,” said House Republican Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor).
Read the complaint here: