In an interview with Maine’s taxpayer-funded radio network Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills denied a suggestion from a listener that her administration has walked away from negotiations with the state workers’ union.
“We are at the table. We’ve been at the table for a couple of months now negotiating over a new state employee contract with several different unions and we intend to stay at the table. We’ve never left the table,” Gov. Mills told Maine Calling host Jennifer Rooks.
The Maine Service Employees Association (MSEA), the 2nd largest labor union in Maine, begs to differ.
On Wednesday, the MSEA sent an email to its members claiming that the Mills Administration’s chief negotiator, Breena Bissell, had literally walked away from the negotiating table.
“[Bissell] abruptly stormed out of negotiations, leaving us all stunned at the disregard and disrespect to everyone,” the MSEA bargaining team wrote in the email.
“There were a number of state workers who were queued up to voice concerns, who didn’t get the opportunity to do so. These are members who took time, unpaid, to come have their voice be heard by the Administration,” the MSEA said. “The Administration walked out on not just those workers; they walked out on all the state workers who are being represented at these bargaining sessions. This is absolutely unacceptable.”
Bissell’s decision to walk away from a collective bargaining session — that is, signing off a Zoom call — is just the latest chapter in acrimonious negotiations between the MSEA and the Mills Administration.
Although the MSEA vigorously endorsed Mills re-election, supported her and her allies financially, and campaigned hard for Democratic legislative candidates, they’ve struggled to find friends in Augusta.
Even despite the unprecedented amount of federal money sloshing around Maine’s coffers and record tax revenue, state workers have been unable to secure a favorable agreement.
In March, the dispute between the MSEA and the Mills Administration grew so bitter that the MSEA filed a prohibited practices complaint with the Maine Labor Relations Board.
The complaint alleged that the Mills Administration was engaging in bad faith bargaining tactics.
Last month, during a MSEA Zoom call, members floated the idea of engaging in some prohibited practices of their own, such as work stoppages or a “sick out“.
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 MSEA rejected that and countered with an immediate $5.00 per hour raise, a 19 percent increase beginning in October, and an 11 percent raise starting in 2024.
Bissell, whose 2022 compensation was worth $157,289.32 per state records, rejected that offer.
The MSEA is now planning to ratchet up their negotiating position by organizing pickets are various state offices.
“If the State’s chief negotiator is going to walk away when workers are expressing their concerns, it’s clear that we need to take our stories to the key decision makers in the administration,” the MSEA said.