The Portland Phoenix

Politics & Other Mistakes: Workers of Maine, unite (or not)

Organized labor’s opinion about who should be Maine’s next governor is sort of, um, disorganized. 

Most of the big labor outfits – the AFL-CIO, and the Maine State Employees Association – have endorsed the incumbent Democrat, Gov. Janet Mills, but they’ve done so in a half-hearted manner because a significant portion of their membership has serious reservations about Mills. Those dissident union members would have preferred issuing no endorsement for anybody. (That actually happened back in 1982, when some unions refused to back Democratic Gov. Joe Brennan for reelection. Brennan won, anyway.)

Maine AFL-CIO President Cynthia Phinney was forced to acknowledge this division in her memo to members announcing the decision to back Mills.

“While we may not always see eye to eye with Governor Mills,” Phinney wrote, “and have been disappointed with some of her decisions, we know that she will work with us collaboratively and in good faith to support working people and our unions so we can continue to build our power in the labor movement.”

That doesn’t seem particularly ambiguous, but at the end of her lengthy memo detailing the advances the unions have made under Mills, Phinney apparently felt the need to acknowledge the opposition several bargaining units expressed toward the governor.

“We know some of you will disagree strongly with this endorsement,” she wrote. “We respect that.”

What Phinney leaves out is that the big unions really had no choice but to back Mills. If they didn’t, they’d face the possibility of serious retaliation should the governor win a second term. And if Mills loses, the situation would be even worse.

Former Gov. Paul LePage, Mills’ Republican opponent, has an anti-labor record that would warm the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge. Among the many LePage initiatives cited in the memo, he favored right-to-work legislation that would ban a requirement that workers join or contribute to unions in their workplace. LePage also opposed efforts to raise the minimum wage and favored a measure to reduce it for anyone under age 20. He made cuts to workers’ compensation and repealed collective bargaining for some agricultural workers and day care employees.

LePage has also made it clear that if he wins a third, non-consecutive term, he plans to slash the public workforce.

“State employees,” he told the Maine Sunday Telegram, “we have way too many. We’re not an employment agency. … We have to become efficient as a government, and we’re no longer efficient because people work remote. So, somebody has got to get back on top and see where the waste is. There is a lot.”

Those are chilling words to labor leaders, who are well aware that during his previous tenure as governor, LePage cut hundreds of union jobs both through budget reductions and by simply refusing to fill open positions. The latter approach hit home with many Mainers when the pandemic slammed the state, and taxpayers discovered Maine had a massive shortage of public-health nurses because LePage had refused to hire new ones when vacancies occurred.

In contrast, Mills’ many sins against the unions seem somewhat less reprehensible. She refused to back a binding arbitration bill, vetoed a measure that would have allowed public employees to strike, and did little to close the pay gap between state workers and private employees doing the same job.

But the governor mitigated some of the animosity of union members by increasing revenue sharing with cities and towns (good for police, firefighters, and public works employees) and fully funding the state’s share of education costs (good for teachers). She allowed loggers to collectively bargain, upped pensions for public-sector workers, and improved unemployment compensation.

Mills has sometimes been an impediment to organized labor, but not a disaster.

Still, there’s a lot of anger out there in union land. Several smaller labor groups have or will refuse to endorse Mills. And a lot of disgruntled members of the bigger labor organizations say they’ll ignore the endorsements and refuse to vote for her, leaving their ballots blank.

They remain resolute – at least until LePage announces his next union-busting plan.

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