Of all the annual rituals of the Legislature, none is a greater waste of energy than Republican attempts to pass “right-to-work” bills. That issue has almost nothing to do with Maine’s economic malaise and everything to do with a far-off war between Republican billionaires and Democratic unions.

For those of you just settling in with your morning coffee, let’s review. Republicans despise unions and blame them for all our economic ailments, conveniently hiding the fact that as unions have diminished in importance in the United States, more of our national wealth has been siphoned upward, the middle class has shrunk and we’re rapidly returning to the income inequality that preceded the Great Depression.

In many places, including Maine, anti-union passions in the Legislature invariably produce a dramatic theatrical show at this time of year. The play has interchangeable actors, but the script never varies and the ending never changes.

As the curtain rises, earnest Republicans look to the skies and shout out against the union stranglehold on the American economy. Then some hapless worker, who would obviously be a raging success in life if he only could be freed from the union’s grip, is trotted out for dramatic effect.

Republicans point to those shining cities on the hill where workers are free from unions, where economies are flourishing and where peace and harmony prevail. They seem to especially like worker paradises such as Mississippi, Arkansas and South Carolina, where wages are lower and poverty is higher than it is here.

This dramatic opening act invariably gives way to a series of predictable rallies and news conferences, ending in a quiet funeral scene once the Legislature — containing, for the most part, thinking people — quietly kills the right-to-work bill before going home.


This would all be great fun if it weren’t for two simple facts. One is that we’ve got serious economic problems in Maine that require the full attention of the folks in Augusta. The other is that unions are not one of them. Only 1 in 8 Maine workers is currently in a union. Some union members work for government or teach our kids. Others are at places such as Bath Iron Works, which fulfills contracts with the federal government, or in mills owned by multinational corporations.

I’m not an uncritical cheerleader for unions. They have their problems, just like every big organization. But there’s a reason why unions exist. When companies get too big and impersonal, they too often treat people like disposable cogs in a machine. Unions are the way that working people, who are virtually powerless as individuals within a giant corporation, can collectively protect themselves from abusive employers.

At the heart of the right-to-work issue is what you might call the “free rider” problem. Unions advocate for higher wages and better working conditions, and that costs money.

Since all workers in a union workplace benefit from that representation, all employees chip in to cover those costs. The free rider is the guy who wants the benefits but doesn’t want to pay his share.

Republicans, ironically, hate free riders when it comes to welfare, but make them heroes when it comes to unions.

What I know about unions comes from working in mills and construction jobs when I was young and from being part of an extended family where some people had union jobs and some didn’t. What I’ve observed from those experiences is that without unions, people who don’t have college degrees make less and get treated worse.


It’s also a historical fact that without unions we wouldn’t have a lot of things that we take for granted today, including the 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, weekends off, safe workplaces and Social Security.

My family was like millions of others who moved from working poverty to the booming middle class after World War II. Along the way, they moved from apartments to their own homes, from no cars to new cars and maybe even to a camp at the lake in the summer.

But there was always a sharp divide in our family between those with union jobs and those without them. Two uncles at Scott Paper ended up in nice ranch-style homes in good neighborhoods. Others, in places with weaker unions or no union at all, worked stitching shirts or making shoes. They didn’t fare quite as well, and many never got out of those apartments.

It’s worth noting that of all those jobs, the only ones left today are at the place that had the strongest union, which is at the relocated Scott Paper mill up the river from Waterville.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan consulting group, which is active in growing Maine’s next economy. Email at [email protected]

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