Even as the organized-labor movement continues to falter on the national level, union leaders here in Maine are optimistic about a potential resurgence — or if not that, at least a stanching of the bleeding and an opportunity to prove that pro-union policies are best for local workers and communities.
The positive signs have come in various forms. Just last week, the state legislature killed a so-called "right-to-work" bill, which would have prohibited "a person from being required to join a labor organization or pay any labor organization dues or fees as a condition of employment or continuation of employment." Some 24 states have enacted such legislation, mostly in the South and Midwest (none in New England). Right-to-work proponents (like Governor Paul LePage and most Republicans) say the bill, similar to one voted down in the last legislative session, would make Maine more attractive to businesses; opponents (mostly Democrats) say right-to-work laws lead to lower wages and are essentially an attempt to bust unions.
Meanwhile, in March, 250 lobstermen signed up to join the newly formed Maine Lobstering Union, an offshoot of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Last month, medical marijuana dispensary employees held a small rally in Longfellow Square that called attention to their own attempts to unionize. Daycare workers in Maine have been divided for years over the pros and cons of collective bargaining rights for private child-care providers who receive state subsidies. And the Maine Education Association, the state's teachers' union, is currently engaged in a full-scale battle with LePage over the administration's education proposals, including efforts to make towns contribute to teachers' retirement funds and an initiative that will give schools across Maine A-through-F letter grades based on performance.
A mere 11.5 percent of Maine workers (64,000) belonged to unions in 2012, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics — some of whom may be unemployed, given that "industries with high rates of union membership have generally had some of the largest job losses . . . paper mills, for example," says Julie Rabinowitz, director of communication for the state Department of Labor. Still, it's clear that organized labor is flexing its muscles in the Pine Tree State.
PROJECT LABOR DISAGREEMENT
Perhaps the brightest development came toward the end of March, when Summit Natural Gas, a subsidiary of the Colorado-based Summit Utilities, announced it would use a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) for its Kennebec Natural Gas project — an 88-mile steel transmission pipeline, plus more than 1600 miles of plastic distribution pipes, running through 17 central Maine communities.
The PLA — modeled on the National Pipe Line Agreement, itself a sort of PLA used nationwide — will apply only to the 88-mile section of pipeline and requires contractors who wish to bid on a portion of the job to adhere to union standards for work conditions, wages, and benefits. Local representatives of the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), who encouraged Summit to make such an agreement, say the PLA locks in good wages (about $17 an hour — as opposed to the $10-12 earned by a typical day laborer), plus benefits and health-care, for pipeline construction workers. Individual laborers need not become union members to earn the agreement's prevailing wage, but they will not receive benefits if they don't. In order to bid on the job, contractors and subcontractors must "sign on" to the PLA, agreeing to abide by certain rules for the duration of this specific project.