AUGUSTA — Labor union members faced off against the LePage administration and Republican lawmakers on Monday over the latest push to make Maine a so-called “right to work” state.

The hours of debate and rhetoric over several bills largely echoed previous “right to work” attempts in Maine with supporters claiming the measures are needed to improve the state’s business competitiveness and opponents dismissing them as blatant efforts to undermine organized labor. States that have passed such laws block unions from collecting dues from employees at unionized companies who opt out of membership.

With Democrats in control of the Maine House and strongly opposed, the bills appear to stand little chance of becoming law this year. Yet those steep political odds did not deter the LePage administration and other supporters as they argued that Maine should be the first northeastern state to pass such a law.

“The trend is clear and is moving toward right-to-work,” said Julie Rabinowitz, director of communication for the Maine Department of Labor. “Maine must compete.”

The right-to-work movement has gained steam in recent years across the country, driven primarily by business interests and Republican governors or legislatures. Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan are the latest of what are now 25 right-to-work states. But those victories have come after heated, high-profile battles with labor unions.

The Maine Legislature rejected two bills in 2013 in votes that fell largely along party lines. On Monday, dozens of union members from across the state filled the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee’s room as well as an overflow room in a clear demonstration of opposition to the measures.


Ryan Jones, financial secretary of the more than 3,000-member Local S6 chapter of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America at Bath Iron Works, said the five right-to-work bills heard Tuesday read “like a hit list.” Jones told the committee that BIW workers are puzzled by why lawmakers are even debating a proposal that he and others believe is only aimed at weakening unions.

“They want to know why legislators are pushing bills … that say people can get all of the benefits of (union) representation — the better wages, the pension, the safer workplace and the representation at work — and not have to pay a nickel,” Jones said. “To me, that’s welfare.”

The political dynamics on this contentious issue — as well as lawmakers’ attitudes toward unions — were often as clear among committee members as they were among those testifying for or against the bills.

Rep. Lawrence Lockman, the Amherst Republican who sponsored two of the right-to-work bills and serves on the committee, accused union leaders of “bludgeoning” workers into joining unions and of “plundering” the paychecks of nonunion workers by collecting dues.

“Let’s set Maine workers free from the shackles of compulsory unionism and make our great state the first in New England to become a magnet for liberty-loving entrepreneurs and good-paying jobs,” Lockman said.

But Sen. John Patrick, a Rumford Democrat and United Steelworkers Union member, said “all of these right-to-work bills are trying basically to outlaw, disband or not allow unions.” Additionally, Democrats pressed Lockman and supporters to supply the committee with data supporting their claims that companies are choosing to locate elsewhere because Maine is not a right-to-work state.


“Do you really think that if we change this one, small section in collective bargaining that it will really make a difference … and it will overcome the other (economic) challenges we have with energy (prices), transportation, access to broadband” Internet, said Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, who co-chairs the committee.

Doug Ray with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development told committee members several times that 19 of the 20 largest manufacturing projects in the U.S. in 2014 went to right-to-work states. While adding Maine to the 25 other right-to-work states will not immediately ameliorate the challenges to recruiting new businesses, it “will remove one impediment to Maine attracting these investments,” Ray said.

“We don’t know who is not coming because they’re not calling,” Ray said.

But union members and leaders — who insist even the phrase “right to work” is a misnomer — countered that the true goal of the legislation is to weaken the bargaining power of organized labor, which has been able to help Maine families by securing higher wages and stronger benefits.

Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, called the bills “the most far-reaching legislative attack on workers’ right to have a voice on the job that we have seen in Maine” in years.

“In our estimation, the purpose behind these bills is simple: One, it is to weaken unions and, secondly, it is to drive down wages,” said Schlobohm predicted.


Ron Green, a Bangor city firefighter representing the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine, echoed those comments as he called on lawmakers to once again reject the measures.

“We’re not the problem. We do our part,” Green said. “We work hard. We go to work every day and try to keep our communities safe. Please stop this nonsense.”

Even Gov. Paul LePage — a strong supporter of right-to-work legislation — acknowledges that the effort faces tough odds.

LePage said Monday on WVOM-FM, a Bangor radio station, that he doesn’t “hold a lot of hope” the Legislature will approve a law this year allowing workers to decide whether to join unions. LePage, who has advocated for right-to-work legislation since taking office in 2011, said that “in order to win battles, you have to have courage,” but he doesn’t see it in the Legislature, The Associated Press reported.

Kevin Miller — 791-6312

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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