The Union Fight You Might Not Have Been Watching

The fight around Wisconsin's public employee unions has in the national spotlight frequently over the last 18 months—culminating in Governor Scott Walker defeating an effort to recall him from office. But while most were at least a little familiar with the Badger State's turmoil around the right to organize and collectively bargain, few have watched the unfolding drama in Maine, where Governor Paul LePage has courted controversy in his discussion of the state's unions.

The governor made headlines a year ago when he removed a mural, deemed too favorable to unions, from the side of the state's Department of Labor building. (In March, a federal judge ruled in favor of LePage's decision.) But the art was only the beginning.

LePage has been in a protracted battle over a collective bargaining agreement with the public employee union Maine State Employees Association, which happens to be the biggest union in the state. Stateline has a great summary of the fights, which include various complaints against the governor; "the most significant, which has been granted a hearing, alleges that the state failed to negotiate in good faith and interfered with the rights of MSEA workers." The governor has also pushed right-to-work legislation—which makes union fees voluntary and generally weakens or kills unions in states—in the typically moderate, pro-union state. The legislature doesn't seem to be quite so excited about killing labor in the state, but it did take away union rights from independent childcare providers according to the Portland Press Herald.
But LePage's relationship with the labor turned particularly sour at a town hall meeting at the end of April, when, as the Bangor Daily News reported, the governor answered a question about fees by saying, "The problem is the middle management of the state is about as corrupt as you can be. Believe me, we're trying every day to get them to go to work, but it's hard." Corrupt and lazy to boot! 

Not only did the remarks rile the union leaders, but, as many local media noted, two GOP lawmakers also spoke out to defend state workers. LePage even sent a letter himself, clarifying the remarks to say that "some employees ... had been corrupted by bureaucracy." The note was far from an apology. "If you are dragging your feet because you do not like the direction the Administration is headed, then it is time to either get on board or get out of the way," LePage wrote.

The results in Wisconsin will likely offer a game plan to other anti-union governors, showing they can count on the national GOP establishment to back them up. Maine may well become a state to watch as public employee unions in particular get targeted.

According to Waterville's Morning Sentinel, when asked about the Wisconsin results, LePage said, in a fake Jamaican accent, "Yah, mon!"


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