AUGUSTA—A bill from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, to promote good-faith negotiations in public sector employee contracts, received a public hearing before the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee on Monday. LD 677, “An Act To Improve Public Sector Labor Relations by Amending the Laws Governing Arbitration Under Certain Public Employees Labor Relations Laws” would make the arbitration process binding for public sector employers and employees on key issues.
“In Maine, when we make an agreement, we stick to it. The same should be done for negotiations,” said President Jackson. “This bill is about making sure agreements reached through binding arbitration actually mean something for employees and employers. Public sector employees work hard. They deserve to know that whatever comes out of the arbitration process will be fair and honored by both parties.”
In contract negotiations, when parties can’t reach a contract, there is a process that involves mediation, fact-finding and then arbitration. Under current law, when entities in the public sector enter arbitration, the agreement reached at the end of the process isn’t binding for some key issues, such as salary, insurance and retirement benefits. This bill would ensure that employers would have to bargain in good faith on agreements reached through arbitration on key economic issues.
“Senator Jackson’s bill would even the playing field, and in doing so would foster the spirit of collaboration and compromise in negotiations. Binding interest arbitration means that both parties know that, at the end of the day, they will have to justify their bargaining positions before a neutral arbitrator who would be empowered to resolve bargaining disputes and make contract language. This threat forces both parties to make reasonable and justifiable proposals and to avoid insistence on irrational or ideological positions,” said Tom Feeley, General Counsel to the Maine Service Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union . “In the more than 40 years since the inception of the various labor relation acts, MSEA has only utilized binding interest arbitration a handful of times. We have not gone to interest arbitration with the Executive Branch—the employer of the vast majority of our members—in more than 30 years. This record reflects our willingness to come to the table and achieve compromise with administrations across the ideological spectrum.”
According to the Maine State Employees Association, the lack of binding arbitration has contributed to the wage gap between state employees and employees working for a private company who do the same job. Last year, an independent consultant studied the compensation for public employees in contrast with the compensation for workers doing similar work in a similar environment. The consultant found that state employees were paid an average of 15-20 percent less than their counterparts. It seems that without binding arbitration there is no incentive for the state to compensate public employees fairly.
“While this bill may not generate a lot of headlines or attention, it is critical to leveling the playing field between public employees—including the educators in our public schools and institutions of higher education—and management,” said Grace Leavitt, President of the Maine Education Association. “It will ensure negotiations are fair, honest, and productive. In fact, we think the passage of LD 677 will lead to swifter resolution of union contracts. Now more than ever it is clear that working people need the protection and voice provided by union contracts. The MEA, on behalf our 24,000 members, enthusiastically supports this important legislation and hopes it will become law this legislative session.”
The goal of a collective bargaining process is for workers and employers to reach a fair, transparent contract. It’s never to get to arbitration. Making the arbitration process binding simply ensures that both employers and workers take the collective bargaining process seriously.
“Across the nation, firefighters, teachers, nurses, public health professionals and other public sector workers have made tremendous sacrifices during this pandemic to keep us safe and keep our economy running. These workers deserve to have good jobs with benefits and a voice in the workplace. Unfortunately, the current rules of the game tilt the bargaining table in favor of employers and make it harder for frontline workers to get a fair shake,” said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO. The current public sector bargaining rules make the arbitration process non-binding on key economic issues. It is long past time to right this wrong and create a fair set of rules for collective bargaining. LD 677 would correct this injustice by ensuring these workers can more effectively bargain to improve funding for education, public safety and other critical public services.”
LD 677 faces additional work sessions in committee.