AUGUSTA—The Maine Senate approved a bill from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, to promote good-faith negotiations in public sector employee contracts in a party-line vote of 19-13 on Wednesday. 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.
“Where I’m from, your word means something. However, right now agreements reached through the arbitration process are meaningless for employees and employers because they simply aren’t binding. As a result, neither management nor employees have any incentive to keep their end of the bargain. Our public employees — our teachers, our firefighters, and snowplow drivers — deserve better,” said President Jackson. “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.
“Grown adults can and should be able to negotiate in good faith, but the current situation makes this untenable. It also becomes a waste of taxpayer dollars if the arbitration process leads to a solution that is ultimately rejected because it does not bind the parties to their agreements. None of these issues are easy,” said Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, Chair of the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee. “COVID-19 revealed the ugliest of the ugly for workers across all sectors and industries. As I see it, workers’ rights are civil rights and that is why I am comfortable with the conflict this bill presents.”
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.
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.
The proposal is backed by the American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees (AFASME), Maine Education Association, Maine State Employees Association, Maine AFL-CIO and National Correctional Employees Union, Androscoggin County Employee Association, Professional Firefighters of Maine, and Maine Law Enforcement Coalition.
LD 677 will now go to the House for a vote.