For the members of Maine Service Employee Association, SEIU local 1989, one of Maine’s largest unions representing more than 12,000 of the state’s employees, the issue is simple: Respect Us, Protect Us, Pay Us. Pine and Roses’ M. Trey Cox, Mike Hein, and Isreal Mosley report from MSEA’s June 27, 2021 contract rally in Augusta.
In a state where Democrats control all three branches of government, you might assume union negotiations between the state and its employees would include things like a living wage, or that pay and benefits were competitive enough to attract qualified workers. Yet, despite pro-union rhetoric from the governor, negotiations have fallen flat, leaving negotiators in dire straits. The current union contract is set to expire at the end of the State’s fiscal year on July 1st, so the union planned a rally beforehand and invited their 12,000 members to show their strength.
Speaking with members of MSEA at their rally, it became clear that while the new administration isn’t blatantly hostile, it also isn’t quite pro-union either. The disrespect these members are feeling was more subtle but just as real. So real that many workers were willing to openly question whether or not it was worth it to remain a public employee.
SEIU Regional Delegate Kerem Gungor explained it in a broader context. “We got rid of the anti-Union president so things are good now? No they aren’t. The unionization rate tanked in this country and there is a lot of work to do. 90% of people don’t have this luxury and unions need to not take this for granted. People are getting so little for so much work. There’s so much job insecurity and a lack of protections under the contractor label and the gig economy.”
The workers aren’t shy in voicing where that disrespect shows through. J.B. Whipple, an Investigator for Adult Protective Services (APS), spoke about the obstinance of the administration on key issues for workers like her. Staff at APS have been trying to get parity in pay across all social worker positions, as APS staff are being underpaid compared to their counterparts. The administration refused to budge, and responded that APS workers should “take it up in negotiations,” but when it was addressed during negotiations the administration refused again.
One issue the union has dug in its heels on is the starting wage of $15 an hour. Watching this issue provides real-time proof of why having a union can pay off. The administration has gone from $13 to $14 and has now moved up to $15 in 2023 depending on position. Regardless of department or occupation the response is the same: $15 is the floor, and workers need it now.
The members at the rally spoke to the fact that they never expected to become wealthy working for the state. They did, however, expect that the difference in pay would be offset with great benefits. Instead, these essential workers saw their hazard pay ended, and many state workers are on food stamps and welfare. Many attendees noted their coworkers were unable to attend the rally because they needed to work their second job.
Allison Perkins, union vice president and negotiating team member, noted the process was going “quite slow,” and commented that she didn’t “understand how [the administration] can say with a straight face that they don’t have the funds to pay a decent wage with [this year’s] budget projections. It makes the whole state look bad not having a $15 minimum wage.”
In his remarks Jonathan French, a Transportation Engineer, recalled a union rally he was at ten years prior under the LePage administration. As he did back then, he now spoke to the need for a fair contract, the difference being the members knew they weren’t going to get one under LePage. He listed key Mills administration priorities, as outlined in the budget, for which she managed to find funding, despite hazard pay ending for workers six months prior. French called on her to return to the bargaining table. While he acknowledged that the relationship was more civil under the new administration, he added that in negotiations, “Actions always speak louder than words.” One thing is for sure, negotiations like this bring into question whether or not Mills has earned the backing of union members when it comes time to renegotiate her contract as governor.
Brian Markey, a DOT Employee from the Bangor area, described how the rank and file has been feeling about this process overall. “Morale has never been lower. From what I can tell, about a third of our employees are looking for other jobs. Comparing job postings has become part of the morning routine.” Another worker chimed in that the starting pay for a Transportation Worker 1 (entry-level) was $14.79 stating that, “you can work a commercial plow truck for the same money you’d make at Dunkin’.”
The data suggests that may be a pretty good decision on the part of state workers since, according to one study, Maine Public Sector employees make 85% of what their private sector counterparts make.
For clarity, that is 85% in addition to the already lower than average wages that Maine workers earn when compared to the rest of New England. The disparity only gets worse as you start to go up the pay scale as mid-level state employees can make as much as 25% less than they would elsewhere.
We asked Alec Maybarduk, MSEA’s Executive Director, what his most important takeaways from the study were. “Two decades of austerity has seriously denigrated public service and driving down wages for public workers drives down all workers’ wages. In the ten-year economic plan [Governor Mills] says she wants to increase Maine wages by 10%. She has to start with her own workers. The state is still advertising jobs starting at $12.15, which is embarrassing. Chipotle is beating them in wages.”
Maybarduk went on to explain that this hurts Maine’s ability to attract and maintain skilled workers. This is one of the factors that contributed to the $35 million loss the state took on a systems upgrade failure. The state pays so little that many contractors weren’t even qualified to do the work, and in the end we all paid for that austerity.
For MSEA things will have to be settled at a bargaining table set by Mills and previous anti-union administrations. And the message is clear: MSEA has a seat reserved for Mills, whenever she’s ready.