AUGUSTA — The Democrat-controlled Maine House rejected several “right-to-work” bills Friday that are backed by the LePage administration but opposed by the state’s labor unions.

The votes followed more than an hour of debate on an issue that has cropped up repeatedly in the Legislature in recent years. Supporters, largely from Republican ranks, contend the measures would improve the state’s business climate and correct policies they say penalize workers who do not want to join a labor union. Opponents decry the bills as little more than attempts to weaken organized labor in the state, ultimately resulting in lower wages and fewer benefits.

“This bill has nothing to do with the ‘right to work,’ ” said Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, co-chair of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, which reviewed the bills. “It does just the opposite: It undermines workers’ rights.”

The House voted 90-52 against a bill that would have prohibited organized labor from collecting fees from employees who decline to join a union. The chamber also rejected bills – by votes of 90-51 and 86-56, respectively – that would have prohibited state or local governments from deducting union dues from employee paychecks and prohibited state employees from being paid while engaging in union-related activities.

This is the third time in four years that the Legislature has debated whether to add Maine to the list of 25 so-called “right-to-work” states. As in past years, lawmakers on both sides traded competing and, at times, contradictory statistics about job growth, economic recovery and wage levels in right-to-work states and states without such policies.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, pointed to U.S. Department of Labor statistics showing that workers in right-to-work states earn, on average, $219 less per week – roughly 20 percent less – than workers in other states. But Rep. Lawrence Lockman, the Amherst Republican who sponsored the primary right-to-work bill, L.D. 489, said workers in right-to-work states earn thousands of dollars more than their counterparts when accounting for cost-of-living differences.

Lockman, a vocal and at times scathing critic of organized labor, talked of “absurd” union work rules that prevent efficiency and “union bosses monopolizing power” within workplaces.

“This legislation is all about personal freedom and individual liberty,” Lockman said. “No American citizen should be forced to buy something that they don’t want and didn’t ask for as a condition of employment.”

Lockman’s statement and other supporters’ suggestions of compulsory unionism is one of the most contentious and confusing aspects of the national debate over right-to-work legislation.

Federal law protects workers from being forced to join a union as a condition of employment. While Lockman and other right-to-work advocates have repeatedly said unions are allowed to only negotiate on behalf of members, labor representatives and legal experts on labor law counter such a practice is clearly prohibited under federal rules governing collective bargaining as well as the federal “duty of fair representation” requirements imposed on unions.

Labor unions can, however, require all workers to pay dues – or “fair share fees” for workers who opt not to join the union – to help cover the costs of collective bargaining, grievance representation and other services provided by unions that extend contract terms to all employees, including non-members.

Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, compared Lockman’s bill to a town making it optional for residents to pay property taxes for a Department of Public Works.

“It is not fair for some employees to benefit from the benefits and protections of an employment contract without contributing their fair share,” Tucker said.

The bills could fare better in the Republican-controlled Senate, but are unlikely to become law because of the lopsided House votes.

Maine AFL-CIO President Don Berry cheered the bill’s defeat.

“Coming together to have a voice on the job about wages and working conditions is the best way for workers to improve their standard of living for them and their families,” Berry said in a statement. “These attempts to undermine collective bargaining rights will do nothing to raise wages and reduce inequality. In fact, they have exactly the opposite effect.”

Lockman was undeterred by the votes, however.

“Every time we have this debate we gain ground,” Lockman said in a statement. “I believe we are moving the ball down the field and Maine will soon be the next right-to-work state.”

Kevin Miller can be reached at 791-6312 or at:

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Correction: This article was updated at 2:50 p.m. on Saturday to correct a statement about labor unions’ obligation to negotiate on behalf of all workers within a “collective bargaining” unit, regardless of their membership status.