BANGOR — A bill that proposes 19 changes to the state’s workers compensation system has union leaders rallying their members in preparation for a major battle at the State House in January.

Maine AFL-CIO Executive Director Matt Schlobohm and union attorney Jim Case briefed nearly 150 union members Thursday on “upcoming state legislative fights” the union expects to wage when lawmakers return to Augusta. The briefing was one of many events held Thursday at the Bangor Ramada at the union’s 28th biennial convention.

“On January 4, the first day of the new legislative session, we should be there en force,” said Emery Deabay, vice president of the Eastern Maine Labor Council. “Let them come in to the session and see we haven’t gone anywhere over the summer.”

While the union is also talking about two other pieces of legislation — the return of a bill to eliminate the “fair share” provision for state workers and a new proposal to ban the practice of collecting union dues by automatic withdrawal — it is mostly fired up about L.D. 1571.

The bill, sponsored by Assistant House Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, proposes several changes to the state workers compensation law enacted after a fierce partisan battle in the early 1990s, and will be heard by the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development Committee.

Proposed changes include:

• Reduces labor’s ability to choose members of the workers compensation board. As it is now, organized labor gets to pick three members on the seven member board, but the bill proposes to reduce that to one member and gives the governor the power to name the other two labor appointees.

• Eliminates the requirement that a physician have an active practice to conduct a medical exam for the purposes of a workers compensation claim.

• Institutes a scale of benefits based on the severity of the injury and reduces the number of weeks benefits are now paid.

Case, an attorney with McTeague Higbee in Topsham, said Cushing’s bill guts the current law.

“It’s an insult to the working people of this state,” he said. “It’s a bill that attacks the right to receive benefits.”

Cushing said he proposed the bill because it’s a difficult economic climate for businesses and he wants to make sure the system is working properly. In particular, he’s concerned about possible abuse of the system and said it’s a mischaracterization to say his bill attempts to gut the system.

“There are some people in society, whether it’s welfare, unemployment, workers compensation, or health insurance, that abuse the system,” he said. “The question has to be asked, what’s the incentive to return to the workforce if they aren’t seeking that on their own.”

He said he has a record of working with Democrats to seek compromise and he does want to make sure the system continues to work for people who are “truly injured.” He said he understands that a strong economy needs good managers and good workers.

“For them to stand up and start to throw around accusations without listening is disappointing,” he said.

Union leaders have already begun to spur opposition to the bill, and passed out post cards that will be sent to lawmakers. They are hoping to send out more than 10,000.

Earlier this year, private and public sector union members were a regular presence at the State House as they fought bills they believed chipped away at their rights. In particular, they protested the fair share bill, L.D. 309, which seeks to eliminate the requirement that all state workers pay at least a portion of union dues even if they are not union members. After a contentious public hearing, lawmakers delayed a committee vote on the bill and carried it over until next year.

Although the amended version of the bill would have affected only public sector workers, private sector mill workers, nurses and others packed the State House in opposition. AFL-CIO leaders on Thursday urged their members to continue to stick with the Maine State Employees Association, saying they believe future legislation will target their members.

Another possible bill on their radar is being proposed by Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells. It would no longer allow unions to collect dues through automatic payroll deduction.

That bill needs to be approved by legislative leaders before it can go forward to the full Legislature. Union members are pledging opposition.

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” Deabay said. “We’re going to do it again in January.”

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]

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