Union battles continue

Organized labor
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 16, 2013

Maine's state employees union is engaged in (yet another) public disagreement with Governor Paul LePage, who has accused the union's general counsel of lying about a potential government shutdown that would come if the guv and the legislature fail to enact a two-year budget by July 1.

"Let me be clear," LePage wrote in a May 13 letter to Rodney Hiltz, chief negotiator for the Maine State Employees Association (MSEA). "I deny that a directive has been issued to any executive branch departments or agencies to 'prepare plans for an inevitable shut down of all non-essential functions of state government for the month of July.' Your accusation . . . is unfounded and, quite frankly, absurd . . . I can only conclude that MSEA is spreading gossip about a shutdown as a ploy to seek political leverage."

Hiltz refused to disclose the source of the MSEA's information, but insisted said source was "credible." Regardless, the union wants its questions answered.

"I reiterate this Union's demand that the Administration negotiate over the impact of any shutdown on bargaining unit members," Hiltz wrote, to discuss questions like "Who will be retained as 'essential' employees?" and "Once funding authority is restored, will laid off employees be paid for the time they were unable to work?"

The governor met with MSEA representatives on Monday morning, but the MSEA's report suggests it wasn't a very productive pow-wow.

"Our members told the truth in requesting a meeting with management to discuss the impact a shutdown would have on them," according to a statement at mseaseiu.org. "Yet minutes into this morning's meeting, Governor LePage disrespected members of our union negotiating team and said that if the Legislature doesn't approve his budget, 'then you have a problem.' Governor LePage and his management team further refused to negotiate this morning with members of our union over the impact of a shutdown. His chief negotiator said management's refusal to negotiate would continue until a shutdown decision is made."

Meanwhile, on Monday, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) filed an unfair labor practice claim against the Wellness Connection of Maine, which operates four of the state's eight licensed medical marijuana facilities (in Portland, Brewer, Hallowell, and Thomaston). The charges, reported to the National Labor Relations Board, allege more than 10 violations of worker's rights, including use of anti-union tactics and the existence of unsafe working conditions. This development comes after an investigation by the state Department of Health and Human Services that found more than 20 code violations including the illegal use of pesticides on cannabis plants.

"We're not refusing our employees anything," says Patricia Rosi, chief operating officer for the Wellness Connection. If a majority of employees wants to unionize, the company will accommodate that desire. "What really matters most is: What's best for our employees is what's best for our patients." Having not yet seen the UFCW's claim, Rosi could not comments on the specific charges of unfair labor practices.

The UFCW, which has its own Medical Cannabis and Hemp Division, represents thousands of medical marijuana workers in six states and the District of Columbia, according to a press release distributed by the Maine AFL-CIO. "UFCW and our members are dedicated to a dignified, controlled, taxed, regulated, compliant, unionized medical cannabis industry," the union has said. The UFCW also this week announced its support for LD1161, An Act to Ensure Regulated Safe Access to Marijuana, which had its public hearing before the Health and Human Services Committee this week and would increase the number of medi-mari dispensaries in Maine.

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