So far, we’ve looked at why employees form unions and how a union becomes the official representative for those employees, but only in theory.
Today, our emphasis shifts to specifics: Maine’s public employees and the bargaining units to which they belong.
Public employees are also known as “public servants” and their employment status is somewhat different from industrial workers. Their employers are state, county or municipal governments and it’s the government that had to give permission for them to bargain.
It was not until 1969 that the first Maine Municipal Public Employees Labor Relations Law (MPLERL) (26 MRSA 961, et seq.) was passed. It permitted county, town and city public employees (including teachers) to organize into bargaining units and become affiliated with umbrella national unions such as AFSCME, NEA and AFT.
The right to bargain collectively was not extended to state employees (both executive and legislative) until 1973 when the State Employees Labor Relations Act was enacted. Employees of the University of Maine system won bargaining rights in 1975 and judicial employees were covered in 1983. From here on, I’ll be talking just about the municipal side unless otherwise indicated.
The expressed purpose of all the laws, though, is:
It is declared to be the public policy of this State and it is the purpose of this chapter to promote the improvement of the relationship between public employers and their employees by providing a uniform basis for recognizing the right of public employees to join labor organizations of their own choosing and to be represented by such organizations in collective bargaining for terms and conditions of employment. (emphasis added)
Today the Maine Labor Relations Board oversees public employee union matters. That’s not the same agency as the Department of Labor or its subsidiary, the Bureau of Labor Standards, two other state agencies with very different missions.
In exchange for the right to collectively bargain, one right many other employees have – that of withholding their work from the employer, otherwise known as a “strike” – was denied. Maine public employees are NOT allowed to strike (26 MRSA 964(C)).
Maine public employees’ bargaining units are similarly not permitted to require employees to join the union in order to be employed (26 MRSA 963). Please remember from our previous discussions, though, that all people holding positions in the bargaining unit are members of that unit and will be covered by the collective bargaining agreement, even if they don’t join the union or Association by paying dues.
Finally, any particular bargaining unit – comprised of specific positions – is formed as of a certain date. The unit definition and composition remains the same until something comes along to change that arrangement.
Next time: Maine teachers and bargaining