By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.
Mayor of Lewiston
We’ve all seen the tens of thousands of state workers in Wisconsin demonstrating in and around the State House in Madison.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker working with his Republican majority in both houses is planning to revoke their collective bargaining rights. The recently elected governor had the backing of Republican members of the Tea Party.
In Maine, some Republicans, but not all, are proposing legislation that would make Maine a “right to work” state. In other words, this legislation would bring us back to the days of Gov. Barry Goldwater and his “right to work” State of Arizona. I remember my father telling me about his opposition to such a law and how it was anti-worker.
At that time we lived in California, and my dad was a union painter who was paid good wages in comparison to what we had left here in Maine when my mother had to work in a shoe shop. In California, she didn’t have to work and we enjoyed a good middle-class style of living.
“Right to work” simply means that if an employee works where the workforce is unionized and negotiates wages, hours, benefits and working conditions, an employee who does not want to be a member of the union is not required to be and does not have to pay dues or a fee. Currently, the union and management can negotiate what is called an “agency fee:” federal law requires that the union must represent those non-union members regardless of whether they pay an agency fee or not; “right to work” would eliminate the ability to charge a fair fee for representation.
The worker does not have to be a member of the union, but if an agency fee is negotiated between labor and management, then the worker must pay a fee for being represented. To do otherwise, those who pay union dues are paying not only to be represented for paying those dues, but are also paying for those who choose not to pay their fair share. It is fundamentally unfair.
Governor LePage and many Republican members of the Maine Legislature are trying to change the law so a worker would not have to join the union and not have to pay an agency fee. Federal law would still require that the unions represent non-union workers in the same workforce. Why then would anyone want to pay dues to still be forced to represent those who don’t pay? In other words, it is union busting! This is the tactic that is being considered in Augusta and now elsewhere in the country.
State workers in Wisconsin are fighting for their right to unionize as Governor Walker is trying to take away those rights that teachers, prison guards and other state workers now enjoy. He has exempted police officers and firefighters, as they supported him in his run for governor. He has even threatened calling out the National Guard in what I would believe as a form of intimidation to stop workers from their freedom of expression as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Governor Walker says the state cannot afford to negotiate with state workers. He claims, “We’re broke!” His critics claim Wisconsin wasn’t broke at all and that there was a projected surplus before a spending package of $140 million that included tax cuts that he offered and was passed in January. Now he claims Wisconsin is $137 million in the hole.
According to Denise Riley of Shawano, Wisconsin, “Gov. Scott Walker has no one to blame but himself for the projected budget shortfall in the next fiscal year, because he kissed $800 million in federal money for high-speed rail good bye and he gave the rich tax breaks worth $117 million.”
Even with all of that, the workers are willing to sit down with the governor and make concessions, but he refuses to do so in hopes of busting the unions.
If today you enjoy an eight-hour day, you can thank unions. If you have weekends off, you can thank unions. If you get paid holidays, you can thank unions. If you are working in a safe and clean environment, you can thank unions. If you are treated justly by your employer, you can thank unions. Responsible employers who treat and pay their workers well need not fear unions. Mistreatment of workers is the primary cause of unionization.
Right here in Lewiston-Auburn, we need only look at our history of people working in our mills. We’ve all seen photos of workers including child workers standing by their machines. I defy anyone to see any of them smiling in those photos. These workers were exploited and basically used as slaves. Is this what we want to return to? Hopefully, today people would fight back like the workers in Madison, Wisconsin.
There was a major strike in Lewiston-Auburn at some nine shoe factories called the “Shoe Strike of 1937.” Dr. Bernard Lown, in whose honor we have a bridge that joins our two cities called the Bernard Lown Peace Bridge, as he is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. I admire this 89-year-old man’s wisdom greatly.
He told me the story that his father ran Lown Shoe Shop for Lown’s uncle. During the shoe strike, Dr. Lown was 15 and said he enjoyed going to the movies. He said his father offered him $15 a week to go to work with other strike breakers.
He said he only lasted a couple of weeks. One day when he and other strike breakers were entering the shop, one short Frenchman on the picket line called them “scabs.” He said one of the “goons” hired by the shop owners hauled off and punched the little Frenchman in the head and he fell in a snow bank, full of blood. The police then came and hauled off this little Frenchman to jail.
He said this incensed him and it became very contentious between him and his father. He said his father claimed they were paying competitive wages. He didn’t eat at the same table with his father for a couple of months. Dr. Lown said he followed the strike case all the way to the Supreme Court. He said this is what started his activism throughout his life, which has ultimately led to being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
As a rookie police officer, in 1969, when I started on the Lewiston Police Department, we walking-beat officers couldn’t even get a coffee break working the midnight shift. In the middle of winter, we had to ask a cruiser officer to go to Dunkin’ Donuts on Main Street to pick up coffees for us, and the officer had to take a chance doing so. Then we would hide in what was Journal Alley near Lisbon and Main Streets to drink the coffee. It was a dead-end alley where Androscoggin Bank is now located, and it was dark. The three of us officers drank our coffee in hiding to keep warm.
When the Maine Municipal Labor Relations Act passed the following year, we organized and became members of the police union. As the second-largest city in the state, we were the lowest paid department in the state.
Initially, we had a tough fight to change our hours, working conditions and wages. We had to picket City Hall in uniform, and we even had to all call in sick at one time with a term more commonly known as “blue flu” before we could get some concessions. We eventually formed another union when we became superior officers, as we knew that we could have a say in our wellbeing. After years of negotiating, LPD became the highest paid department in the state. That is no longer the case today.
Yes, here I am as mayor of our city supporting the right of workers to belong to unions. That is because I know where I came from. If I benefitted from being a union member, why would I not want others to enjoy similar benefits of negotiating for their terms of employment? To those who oppose unions as being unreasonable, I simply caution that when we have asked union members for concessions in difficult economic times, they have responded and to them I am thankful for the benefit of our residents.
I should also note that all six City of Lewiston labor contracts contain agency fee or fair share provisions that were negotiated between the city and the unions; it has worked well and has not been an issue. It is not the non-union workers making an issue of this. It is some Republicans, and not all, trying to bust the unions.
They want workers to beg in lieu of negotiation and thus widen the gap between the rich and the working poor as we are seeing all across America. Remember that recent big tax cut for the top two percent?
See Mayor Gilbert’s personal blog at www.MayorLarryGilbert.com