It is hard to believe summer is almost over. In some places, schools are back in session or kids are in pre-season practices. The last push of summer family tourism — a major economic driver for our state — is underway. And Labor Day is just over a week away.
As the holiday weekend approaches, Maine government employees will be considering new contracts with the state. A 6 percent raise — over the next two years — is on the table from Gov. Paul LePage. The trade-off? Elimination of “agency fees” or, in other parlance, the establishment of “right to work” in parts of the public sector.
It is a question going back decades. When unions collectively bargain with government, the resulting contract applies to all positions covered by the agreement. Therefore unions would push for language in the contract requiring non-union employees to pay their “fair share” of the negotiation cost. In the case of the Maine State Employees Association, nearly 25 percent of public sector employees were required to pay these “agency fees,” even though they actively chose not to join the union.
In economics, this is known as the “free rider” problem. If someone can benefit from a service without paying for it, some will choose to take a free ride. When too many start riding the wagon and stop pulling, everything stops.
There are two ways to combat this. One is use the power of government to force everyone to pay; these are “fair share” provisions. The other is to offer enough added-value for the individual to entice them into paying; historically, this is what unions offered with training and apprenticeship programs (and some still do).
However, in a pluralistic political system, that “free rider” problem is faced by other organizations. The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine represents the interests of hunters and anglers in Augusta. The Farm Bureau is meant to inform policymakers about the concerns of the agricultural industry. Or take your pick of countless other associations.
The difference comes in the authority granted to them. Most associations — as groups composed of individual citizens — have only the right to petition their government, as enshrined in the Maine and U.S. Constitutions. They can argue, beg, plead, and harangue elected officials about their problems and why they require certain solutions, but their true power lies at the ballot box. This time next year, our mailboxes will be filled with flyers from these groups telling you why Senator X is a friend of farms or Representative Y is against traditional Maine recreation.
Public sector unions are different. Maine law requires collective bargaining. This structure forces negotiations between the governor and his representatives and union leadership. However, the unions remain free to engage in political activity and try to influence the ballot box. That can create perverse incentives.
If former Rep. Mike Michaud had beaten LePage in his Blaine House race, he would have owed his success — in part — to the million-plus dollars in electoral support from public sector labor unions. While it is certainly possible for elected officials to stand opposite their supporters, it becomes even more difficult when a law compels you to sit across from them and negotiate.
That challenge is why, for many years, there was no collective bargaining for public employees. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt expressed it clearly: “the process of collective bargaining … cannot be transplanted into the public service …The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives …”
And that brings us back to the “free rider” problem. While some unions express concern about losing their ability to take “fair share” payments from non-members to support their bargaining, enshrining the already bargained-for contract provisions into law could alleviate the need for future bargaining. Then public employee unions could serve the same role they did in FDR’s day; advocating to elected officials on their concerns and undertaking political activity supporting it. If state workers saw value in those activities, they would be free to fund it of the own volition.
Contrary to talking points, Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike want a fairly-compensated, trained, and productive state workforce. But that desire is just one we ask legislators to balance among many others; placing every Mainer’s interest on an equal footing in Augusta is the best way to help the system work.