AUGUSTA — After wrangling with Gov. Paul LePage for more than two years to negotiate a new contract, Maine’s primary state employees union is reviewing a tentative compromise hammered out last week that includes two wage increases in the next year.

Tim Belcher, lead counsel for the Maine State Employees Association, said after a contract is negotiated with the state, the union’s board of directors must review it.

Then the union prepares summary sheets and schedules informational meetings with members, who have to ratify it in an election, which he said could take place by July’s end.

The end of negotiations is a long time coming, having started in 2011, the year the last contract expired.

Since then, the administration and union have been locked in a number of conflicts surrounding negotiations and other labor issues. Already, both sides have claimed victories in the new contract, finalization of which the governor’s office announced Wednesday.

The union touted two 1 percent wage increases for state workers taking effect in September 2013 and July 2014 — the first increases in more than four years for those workers. The deal affirms that state workers will see merit pay increases that the Legislature funded in the state’s new two-year budget, which took effect July 1.

“The money they put on the table is not nearly enough for our employees, but it’s progress,” Belcher said.

But the LePage administration said it eliminated waste contained in previous deals, such as in certain phone allowances and state-paid leave for workers to attend annual union conventions and board of directors meetings.

Cynthia Montgomery, chief counsel with the state’s Office of Employee Relations, which handled negotiations for the administration, said in older contracts some state employees received state allowances to have landlines at their homes to be used if they had to be contacted outside of work hours while also getting state-paid cellphones.

Now, she said, only employees who live in rural areas with subpar cellphone service will receive allowances.

Also, the state won’t pay employees to attend annual union conventions and will pay employees to go to only four union board of directors meetings per year, down from 12 in the last contract. Montgomery said that could save the state approximately $45,000 annually.

“I think we did a better job at being stewards of taxpayers’ money,” she said.

Belcher said the union agreed easily to the phone provisions, but the meeting changes were more difficult.

Negotiations over the contract were rancorous, with the union filing four complaints with the Maine Labor Relations Board against the administration over the bargaining process, including allegations that it wasn’t bargaining in good faith.

Belcher said the union agreed to drop the three active complaints once the contract is ratified.

In 2011, the MSEA filed a complaint against LePage’s administration, saying it violated Maine law by hiring private contractors to do employees’ work after the last contract expired that year. However, the Maine Labor Relations Board rejected it, and the union pulled it in May of this year.

The governor’s office was also criticized in 2011 for using Louis DiLorenzo, a prominent labor attorney based in New York City, early in negotiations. At the time, the union said it was entering bargaining talks from a defensive position, looking to protect existing wages and benefits.

It did better than that. The contract clears the way for merit-pay increases for one year after a five-year freeze.

The Legislature put $7.6 million in the state’s two-year budget to do that and protect longevity pay that LePage proposed to eliminate.

Under the budget, workers currently receiving longevity pay — an hourly wage increase that starts at 15 years of service — will continue to get what they’re getting currently. Employees newly hitting the 15-year threshold won’t get it.

Chris Quint, executive director of the MSEA, has said of the 9,375 state workers represented by the union, 5,962, almost 64 percent, will be eligible for a periodic merit increase this year under the budget, while the other employees aren’t eligible.

However, even last week, the governor’s office was saying merit increases were up in the air. In an email to executive-branch employees last Tuesday, LePage said state law prohibited him from authorizing increases without a new contract in place.

The union shot back with an email saying LePage was misinterpreting the law and stalling on the contract. The governor responded to that Wednesday afternoon by saying the union was making false statements. His office announced a deal that evening.

In his Tuesday email, LePage also wrote that while the Legislature funded merit increases to executive-branch employees for one year, it made increases available to judicial-branch and legislative-branch employees for two years.

“I know that you work just as hard at your jobs, and you do not deserve to be treated worse than employees in the other two branches of government,” the governor wrote.

But Belcher said the other branches have fewer employees than the executive branch, and the Legislature has more flexibility to provide raises to the judicial and legislative branches.

He said that part of LePage’s email was uncalled for, and while the union has had difficult negotiations before — particularly with Democrat Joseph Brennan, the governor from 1979 to 1987 — LePage was the most difficult.

“I don’t think we’ve ever dealt with a governor that’s as antagonistic as this governor,” Belcher said.

But Montgomery said LePage was squarely aimed at eliminating waste, and the state got more out of the deal than it typically has in the past.

“We stood firm on the things that were important,” she said. “The governor was not willing to back down.”

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632
mshepherd@mainetoday.com
Twitter: @mikeshepherdme