Maine’s second largest labor union is considering illegal tactics, including tactics that could temporarily shut down state government, to gain leverage in its so far unsuccessful negotiations for pay increases with Gov. Janet Mills’ bargaining representative, the Maine Wire has learned.
The Maine Service Employees Association – Service Employees International Union 1989 (MSEA-SEIU 1989), the union that represents state employees, offered a proposal that included steep pay increases and several additional benefits in April.
But the Mills Administration’s head negotiator, Director of the Bureau of Human Resources Breena Bissell, countered with a lowball offer from the Mills Administration last month that the union rejected almost instantly.
That package offer has expired.
Tuesday evening, roughly 75 state employees were on a bargaining session Zoom call where members discussed whether state workers should go on strike, stage a “sick out” or engage in a workplace slowdown — tactics that are illegal under the Maine State Employees Labor Relations Act.
Some state workers, including one with a master’s degree, said they’ve had to take on second jobs in order to keep pace with the rising costs of food, child care, and other goods and services.
During the call, some members were adamant about the need to escalate tactics, but MSEA leadership repeatedly stressed that it would be illegal to use union resources to organize any form of work stoppage.
“I just want to say, the only way management’s gonna listen to us is by staging a sick out,” said Kevin Russell, an eligibility specialist at the Department of Health and Human Services.
A sick out occurs when a large number of employees disrupt the function of a government office or a business by calling in sick on the same day.
“They’re not gonna listen to us unless we do something drastic,” Russell said. “We can do everything else, they don’t really care. The governor’s in her final year, final year and a half, she doesn’t care. They’re contracting out state workers left and right. They are just beaten us and waiting this out. I think we need to take more drastic action to make them know that we’re serious, this compensation package is what we need and what we deserve. I mean, I haven’t gotten [a pay increase] in three years, and my cost of goods and services have gone up astronomically. I’m ready to stage sick out, I’m tired.”
According to state records, Russell’s base pay from the state was $47,103 in 2021 and $49,315 in 2022. Had his salary merely tracked inflation over that time period, his base pay would exceed $53,000.
In 2022, Bissell, Mills’ chief negotiator, received a compensation package worth $157,289.32, an increase in her total 2021 compensation of $151,440.46, according to state payroll records.
“Like, I’ve worked in lots of campaigns, put out flyers, the governor takes credit for the fifteen dollars an hour [minimum wage], I was out in the streets with banners fighting for fifteen, they didn’t give me that. I worked for that,” he said. “We need to start taking more drastic action.”
MSEA’s Director of Organizing Angela MacWhinnie attempted to steer the conversation away from illegal tactics.
“As a representative, as the chief negotiator for the bargaining team, that is not an action that I can openly endorse or plan,” said MacWhinnie.
“I’m legally bound and obligated to say that we are not able to have me endorse or use this space to talk about a sick out,” said MacWhinnie.
One state worker then floated the idea of having non-leadership members organize an unofficial sick out, but MacWhinnie also said that would be illegal because members would be taking sick time for untruthful reasons.
Then a state worker on the call suggested members all take personal time, which in some cases doesn’t require supervisor approval, on the same day to accomplish the same objective.
The union decided to obtain legal guidance on whether the “personal time out” would be a viable option.
If the MSEA went on strike, staged a sick out, or caused any form of work stoppage in state government, the Mills Administration would likely file a prohibited practices complaint with the Maine Labor Relations Board.
If the board found that MSEA sanctioned a prohibited practice, then it would issue a cease and desist letter. If MSEA ignored the letter and continued engaging in prohibited practices, then the matter could eventually result in a hearing before a Kennebec County Superior Court judge who would have the authority to enforce an injunction.
Such a conflict could even result in progressive discipline for MSEA President Dean Staffieri, who is also a state employee.
Maine law states that the court would have the authority to “compel compliance”; however, it’s unclear how the state would compel state workers to stop a sick out that has already occurred.
Other tactics discussed on the call were organized efforts for members to all wear purple shirts on the same day, bringing cupcakes into state offices with pro-union messages, and a demonstration at the State House.
MacWhinnie said the key to any successful union tactic would be broad organization and coordination among state employees.
“There are some people willing to do a much more militant thing. And then there are some people not ready to do that,” she said. “And we plan action that both plays to the strength of the big militancy, but also of numbers. Those are the two ways that we flex power.”
MacWhinnie said the Mills Administration keeps a close eye on potential union tactics and has called her in the past to inquire about rumored plans, including a plan to have state workers take a mass photograph during a break.
The union is currently planning to drop leaflets around state parks and other state facilities raising awareness about their struggle to bargain for pay increases.
The MSEA and its parent union, the SEIU, are traditionally loyal supporters of the Democratic Party.
The MSEA has long been considered a left-wing juggernaut in Maine politics, with hosts of activists who are active at the State House and in most elections.
But despite these efforts, the MSEA has been spurned by the very Democrats they helped elect, especially Gov. Mills.
The dispute between the MSEA and the Mills Administration became so bitter in March that the union filed a Maine Labor Relations Board complaint against the governor. The complaint alleged that Mills’ representatives were not bargaining in good faith and had engaged in prohibited practices.
The two sides are still miles apart when it comes to proposals, according to bargaining proposals reviewed by the Maine Wire.
The MSEA initially proposed a $5.00 per hour increase to all state worker wages plus an additional 22 percent increase — both effective this year — followed by a 15 percent increase in 2024.
The state responded with an offer of no pay raises in 2023, a four percent raise in 2024, and a three percent raise in 2025.
The new counter offer from the MSEA is for an immediate $5.00 per hour raise, a 19 percent increase beginning in October, and an 11 percent raise starting in 2024.
Bissell shot that down Tuesday night at the bargaining session.
“It’s not enough movement,” said Bissell. “We know that there is not enough money to do the $5.00 an hour, 19 percent, and 11 percent. But again, appreciate the movement.”
According to the MSEA, Bissell told them that the original MSEA proposal for pay increases would amount to a $592.6 million increase in state spending throughout 2024 and 2025.
Bissell’s insistence that the State lacks the money to fund their proposed pay raises follows a legislative session in which Mills approved the largest biennial budget in the history of the State. Mills also approved a nearly $500 million package in January and a nearly $900 million spending bill loaded with funds for progressive projects.
The Mills Administration has declined to tell the MSEA how much money is available for pay increases.
Bissell said the Mills Administration would offer another proposal on Thursday.
“I’d really like to wrap negotiations soon,” she said.
In addition to representing state workers in the executive branch, the MSEA represents judicial branch employees, employees of the Maine People’s Alliance, employees of Planned Parenthood, and employees of the Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. However, those groups bargain separately from executive branch employees.
All told, the executive branch bargaining unit has more than 5,000 members, though that number has declined in recent years.