Statehouse Report: Legislators, Maine Medical Center trade barbs on union drive

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Nurses at Maine Medical Center in Portland will begin voting March 29 by mail-in ballot on whether to unionize – the state’s most closely watched labor organizing effort in at least a generation, as National Nurses United seeks to represent 1,600 nurses for its Maine State Nurses Association affiliate.

The hard-fought contest has included MMC’s decision to hire “union avoidance” firm Reliant Labor Consultants of Apollo Beach, Fla., and reached a new level of controversy when it was discovered the hospital had vaccinated its out-of-state consultants, contrary to Maine public-health guidelines.

MMC apologized for that action, but critics weren’t mollified. On March 12, Democratic legislative leaders unleashed a broadside, calling on MMC to “fire its union busters” in order to “repair the damage and restore trust.” The hospital declined to do so.

A letter signed by all six legislative leaders, chairs of the Labor and Housing Committee, two other senators, and 55 representatives noted many concerns: “We have heard from nurses about being accosted in one-one-one anti-union meetings, dragged from patient care to listen to out of state anti-union consultants lecture them on why they should vote no … and threatened by certain supervisors that they stand to lose benefits, or employment, if they vote yes.”

The unusual intervention by elected officials, Senate President Troy Jackson said in an interview, was prompted by MMC’s intransigence. “It’s a great hospital, of that I have no doubt,” he said, but its anti-union campaign “has gone way over the line.”

MMC shows no sign of backing down. In a March 14 response to lawmakers, it asserted that “allegations that nurses would face retribution for exercising their rights are false.”

The hospital also took a shot at Jackson and “some of his colleagues,” saying, “Maine Medical Center understands the need for some politicians to reflexively support all union organizing drives.”

Gov. Janet Mills is taking a more measured approach. Spokesperson Lindsay Crete said Mills “believes that all working people, including nurses at Maine Medical Center, should have the right to decide freely and independently whether or not to unionize, weighing the benefits of collective bargaining, advocacy, and representation in matters of compensation and working conditions against the status quo.”

Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, the Labor and Housing Committee co-chair, said nothing he’s seen from the hospital surprises him. He noted that legislators often write to companies in the midst of union campaigns to remind them of their legal obligations, and did so for a Hospice of Southern Maine union election in 2017, and for the Portland Museum of Art last year.

State Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash: Maine Medical Center’s anti-union campaign “has gone way over the line.”

What MMC is doing is different, he said.

“The calls from nurses started the same day the Reliant lawyers showed up,” Sylvester said. He said he agrees with Jackson that the hospital’s relations with the community, and with elected officials, are rarely problematic. “They’re willing to recognize their shortcomings,” he said. “They take the time to listen to legislators and the concerns we bring with them.”

But in the union drive, he said, MMC officials, “don’t seem to be at the wheel anymore. That’s why we’re telling them to fire Reliant.”

“If all they wanted to do was present the facts, and their opinions about the union, there are plenty of Maine attorneys who could do that,” Sylvester continued. “Why do they have to go out of state to hire someone to deliver that message?”

Jackson said his own view started to shift when the Reliant consultants were vaccinated, which he called “wicked unfair,” and when the hospital wasn’t willing to cut ties with the firm.

“It’s the most egregious thing I’ve ever heard,” he said, “to vaccinate a bunch of high-priced lawyers from Florida and squeeze hard-working nurses.”

As for the idea that he’s reflexively pro-union, Jackson said “I’ve always been a strong advocate for the working class,” dating back to his days organizing loggers in Aroostook County. Lawmakers spoke out, he said, “because it’s not a fair process at this point.”

Sylvester said he expected the campaign to intensify as voting nears.

“The last weeks are awful as the pressures double down,” he said. “The bravest thing a worker can do in this country is to try to organize a union.”

The National Labor Relations Board is expected to tabulate the ballots on April 29.

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues since 1984 as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times.

Union climate takes a turn for the better

For the first time in decades, union organizers have a friend in the White House. President Joe Biden hasn’t been shy about touting his union support – the first Democratic president to do so since Lyndon Johnson, and the first nominee since Walter Mondale lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Erosion of Democratic support began with President Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976, and President Bill Clinton in 1992. They were “from anti-union states, and were at best agnostic on support for organized labor,” said Michael Hillard, an economics professor at the University of Southern Maine.

“The 1970s is when union-busting took off,” Hillard said. The AFL-CIO tried to counter it with legislative drives in 1977, 1994, 2007 – and 2009, with a new Democratic president, Barack Obama. All failed, mostly due to Republican-led filibusters.

Hillard said Obama should be credited with installing “very pro-union staff” at the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board, but he was unable to check anti-union trends in Congress and at the Supreme Court.

Mike Sylvester, Maine House chair of the Legislature’s Housing and Labor Committee, said the high-water mark remains the New Deal’s Wagner Act of 1935, establishing broad rights to collective bargaining. Since the Republican-passed Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, “it’s been all downhill,” he added.

There are some glimmers of a turnaround. When a new House Democratic majority in Congress passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act in 2019 to restore some of labor’s lost bargaining power, it was seen as largely symbolic. The House just passed it again, and this time – while far from a sure thing – there’s a different climate, with Democrats in control of the Senate, and the presidency.

In Maine, Sylvester had a small success in enacting a 2019 bill that provides for “card check” certification of unions in municipal governments. “Card check” means that when a majority of employees sign union cards, the unit is certified. Federal law, governing the private sector, requires a separate election, no matter how many cards are signed – a process now unfolding at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

Organizers take heart from recent remarks from Biden, who was quizzed about efforts to organize Amazon.com workers in Bessemer, Ala., and said there should be no “anti-union propaganda.” Balloting in that election ends March 31.

Biden also observed that “Unions built the middle class. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, but especially Black and brown workers.”

— Douglas Rooks

Environmental rights amendment clears committee hurdle

A proposed state constitutional amendment affording Mainers “a right to a clean and healthy environment” has cleared the Environment and Natural Resources Committee with bipartisan support.

The committee voted 9-4 after a March 17 work session to send a revised version to the floor.

The amendment is the work of first-term Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, who emphasized a non-ideological, non-confrontational approach to legislation that will be tested as she tries to add a new guarantee to Article 1, Maine’s “Declaration of Rights.”

Like all amendments, it needs support from two-thirds of both the House and Senate. To succeed, it will need at least two Republican senators and 17 GOP House votes. If approved by the Legislature, it would also need to be ratified by a majority of the voters in a statewide referendum.

But Maxmin isn’t counting votes yet; she’s persuading colleagues, one by one, which may be working.

One House Republican, Justin Fecteau of Augusta, weighed in with support March 16. “The time (Maxmin) has spent on this and her inclusivity,” Fecteau said, “… has resulted in an amendment I fully plan on supporting.”

Another Republican, Sen. Russell Black, who runs a farm, woodlot, and maple sugaring operation in rural Franklin County, co-sponsored the bill, LD 489. But he’s still considering his vote. “I like the concept,” Black said, “but I’m not 100 percent there yet.”  

After testimony from 80 groups and individuals, the work session amendment was substantially different than the one heard March 8. Maxmin said she’d already fielded suggestions from other legislators before the hearing, where testimony included opposition not only from the Maine Chamber of Commerce but groups such as the Maine Dairy Industry Association, which expressed concern about effects on agricultural practices.

The new version, which is much shorter, says, “The people of Maine have the right to a clean and healthy environment and to the preservation of the natural, cultural, and healthful qualities of the environment.” It adds, “The State may not infringe upon these rights.”

Maxmin said she clarified that “the amendment protects the people from government actions,” and couldn’t be employed in private lawsuits “against your neighbors or against businesses.” Also removed was a reference to the state as “trustee,” which might have required more active measures.

That issue came up again when a business lobbyist, attorney William Ferdinand, suggested the state might be required to “provide” a healthy environment. Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Norway, corrected that impression, noting the amendment language of “conserve, protect and maintain.”

Bennett, also a co-sponsor, said he disagreed with Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittston, who said the amendment could lead to a “litigation nightmare.” Bennett said he “had some concerns, but they’ve been addressed by the new language.”

Environmental attorney Maya van Rossum said that, while no one can predict specific court rulings, judges would rely on existing state and federal laws, including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

Bennett said the amendment would offer new protections for “traditional pursuits like hunting and fishing,” and should win broad support.

In the end, only Bennett joined the committee’s eight Democrats in favor, while all four House Republicans were opposed. But Maxmin said that, as the amendment becomes more familiar to the public, there’s a decent chance it will win more votes.

Nationally, efforts for such state constitutional changes are monitored at Green Amendments for the Generations. Maxmin said that while several states have already adopted amendments, she prefers those in Montana and Pennsylvania, where they’re embedded in the state bill of rights.

The issue is urgent as the climate crisis escalates, she said: “People are jaded by how quickly laws can be made and unmade, how different administrations can do and undo” environmental policy.

An amendment provides more lasting protection. “It won’t be possible to unilaterally impose a new set of policies,” Maxmin said. “Now, we’re at the mercy of whoever’s in charge.”

— Douglas Rooks