The last two decades have been hard for Maine’s public employees, and things aren’t getting any easier. The two largest state employee bargaining units were recently offered a Hobson’s choice by Gov. Paul LePage.

The unions could get a 6 percent raise over two years, which, with inflation averaging 2 percent annually, means about 1 percent each year — hardly munificent. The Hobson’s choice? The offer is good only if they also give up their statutory right to collect “agency fees” for those covered by the contract, but not joining the union.

These fees have been much misunderstood. By law, unions must represent everyone in their workplaces. If a grievance needs to be filed, all employees get representation, whether they pay dues or not.

It isn’t equitable for “free riders” to get the benefits when they don’t contribute to maintaining them. Americans seem to have reluctantly accepted this truth about health insurance, and the principle is even more important in the workplace, where economic justice is in short supply.

At the end of the Baldacci administration, the state commissioned a report comparing wages and benefits in state government with those in Maine’s private sector. The report was issued just after LePage took office, and it showed that, uniformly, state employees were paid less than their private sector counterparts, even when their relatively more generous benefits are included in the equation.

As one might expect, the new governor didn’t take the report as a signal to improve wages or benefits. He pursued income tax cuts for the next six years, which further eroded the state’s ability to pay competitive wages, along with almost everything else it does.

LePage was occasionally willing to single out a group of underpaid employees and supervisors for remedial pay increases, mostly in law enforcement, but if you worked for any other department you were out of luck.

At one time, it was seen as a step up to work for Maine state government; no more. The Maine Turnpike Authority recently considered seeking an exemption from the usual state rates for snowplow drivers.

The reason? It can’t hire enough drivers, because private contractors, and some southern Maine municipalities, offer much better pay.

The drainage of dollars from the public to the private sector — and mostly into the pockets of the 1 percent — has been going on for a long time, and the public finally seems aware of what’s happened. The across-the-board support for minimum wage increases, even in such unlikely places as Alabama, demonstrates that people understand that if work doesn’t pay, society doesn’t work.

The application to the union sectors has been slow in coming, however. It was convenient for those with power and wealth to pretend that “globalization” would inevitably lower wages for everyone without an advanced degree — but it wasn’t.

For decades, we were persuaded that well-paid factory work, which was disappearing, would be replaced at similar wage levels only if everyone went back to school or became entrepreneurs. This also turns out to be a half truth, at best.

“Service jobs” are not inherently low paid. Doctors, lawyers and hedge fund managers are all in “service” positions, yet their incomes have gone up, not down. What a society values is inherent in what it’s willing to pay people and, since there’s overall economic growth, declining wages are a conscious choice, not a logical result.

State employees are service workers, too, and rewards for service weren’t much better in the Baldacci years than they have been under LePage. The one thing their associations were offered — they’re not really unions, since they’re barred from striking — were the agency fees.

LePage wants to take those away. Rebuffed by the Legislature, he now wants to do it through bargaining. If his offer isn’t accepted, the deal is 1 percent for two years — another pay cut.

The Maine State Employees Association’s negotiators accepted the deal for its 7,000 members and 2,300 now paying fees. The American Federation of State and County Employees, which represents 900 corrections and mental health workers, said no.

Each result will have to be ratified by members before taking effect, and it will be interesting to see what choice they make.

It’s been hard enough for unions to survive amid our broad-scale devaluation of wage employment. Will workers continue to join unions if they can get many of the benefits for free?

Hobson’s choices are, by definition, no choice at all. This is the last time Paul LePage will have anything to say about the state workforce. One hopes that, under his successor, there’s better leadership on all sides.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 32 years. His biography, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at: [email protected]

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