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Labor Legislative Update: Card Check, Buy American & Labor Law Enforcement Bills

Andy O’Brien
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This week, the Maine AFL-CIO testified in support of LD 1983, the “Maine Buy American and Build Maine Act,” which would require any materials valued over $5000 — such as iron, cement and steel — used in state-funded construction projects to be manufactured in the United States. The measure, which is sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, would also require that if two or more bids are submitted that are substantially similar, that the state give preference to in-state contractors in awarding the construction contract.

“It is not right that companies manufacture overseas in order to avoid being held to the same standards as local companies. These standards include basic rules around workplace safety, child labor and environmental protection. Manufacturing overseas often results in working people being exploited through unsafe and shameful conditions at their job,” said Maine AFL-CIO Legislative and Political Director Adam Goode in support of the bill. “Why would we use taxpayer dollars to reward companies that have moved their operations, investment dollars, and jobs away to foreign countries that lack or completely disregard basic environmental and workplace safety rules?

LD 1983 would allow state agencies to apply for a waiver of the Buy American requirement if it would procuring materials made in the US would be “inconsistent with the public interest.”

Other groups that testified in support of the bill included the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) — a partnership between the United Steelworkers and some of the nations leading manufacturing companies — and the American Institute of Steel Construction, the Maine Service Employees Associations (MSEA-SEIU 1989), and the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

Senate Passes Card Check for Public Employees

The Maine Senate voted Wednesday on party lines, 20-11, to pass legislation that would expand the card check law to include state workers, judicial employees and university, academy and community college employees. LD 2032, "An Act to Improve Maine's Labor Laws by Changing the Laws Governing Elections of Collective Bargaining Agents for Certain Public Employees,” would streamline the union election process by requiring public employers to recognize a union if a majority of workers in the bargaining unit sign union cards rather than going through the long, costly process of holding a secret ballot election.

The proposal, which is sponsored by Sen. Mike Tipping (D-Penobscot), would require a secret ballot election only if the Maine Labor Relations Board finds majority support for the organization to be in question after examining the cards. A state law passed in 2019 allows municipal to use card check and since then it has been used in several union elections involving fire fighters, bus drivers and other municipal employees.

For all other workers in the public and private sector, under current law the employer can decide not to recognize the union when a majority of workers sign up and demand a secret ballot election. In many cases, the employer uses the extra time to wage an anti-union campaign to pressure workers into voting against unionizing. Employers are charged with violating federal law nearly 42 percent of all union election campaigns, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

“After the passage of a 2019 law, municipal employees and employers have a much more streamlined process that avoids the cost, time and animosity associated with employers ignoring the worker interest in forming a union,” said Adam Goode, Legislative and Political Director for the Maine AFL-CIO at the public hearing for the bill on January 16. “For the past four years, the municipal workplace has worked well under a system where the MLRB simply looks at all the cards and determines if the majority of the employees have legally signed with the intent of organizing a union.”

The measure faces further votes in the House and Senate.

Committee Passes Bills to Hold Labor Law Breakers Accountable

This week, the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee voted on party lines to pass a bill (LD 372) that would simplify procedures so that companies who violate labor laws are held accountable. The bill will allow the Maine Department of Labor to order employers to pay back wages when they have violated wage and hour laws.

“Ultimately I think this is a basic bill that comes down to people deserving  what they are owed and there should be appropriate enforcement of that under the law,” said Rep. Mark Mason (D-Biddeford) in making a motion to support the measure.

Under current law, inspectors with the Maine Department of Labor’s Wage & Hour Division, can impose fines on companies that steal wages from their employees or ignore minimum wage laws, but they are not empowered to order the payment of back wages.

According to Director of Labor Standards Jason Moyer-Lee, that means that some employers just refuse to pay back wages when caught violating wage and hour laws or insist on paying a lower amount.

“Sometimes they dissolve the company and set up a new company doing the exact same thing,” said Lee.

Currently, the only way to compel employers to pay back wages is to get the Attorney General’s office to file a lawsuit against violators in court. LD 372 would empower the Bureau of Labor Standard’s Wage and Hour Division to not only fine the employer, but also order them to pay the back wages and liquidated damages with interest on exactly the same terms as a court would do. It would also allow the victim to recover damages through a private right of action in court. Speaking against the measure, ranking Republican committee member Rep. Dick Bradstreet (R-Vassalboro) called the proposal “a little excessive.”