Two bills that advocates argue would right the historical wrong of farmworkers being excluded from labor protections were brought before the Maine Legislature on Wednesday, with those in favor urging lawmakers to provide agricultural workers with the same safeguards enjoyed by other workers.
One of those bills, LD 151, would allow farmworkers in Maine to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining without fear of retaliation. When it comes to unionizing, the bill would cover farms with five or more employees, Rep. Thom Harnett (D-Gardiner), the sponsor of the measure, told the Labor and Housing Committee during a public hearing Wednesday. For the purposes of speaking with an employer about improving conditions or pay, Harnett said the bill would apply to farms with two or more workers.
The committee also heard another bill sponsored by Harnett, LD 1022, which would “make agricultural workers and other workers” subject to state wage and hour laws, allowing them to be covered by minimum wage and overtime statutes.
As Harnett previously told Beacon, the bills are meant to address long-standing exemptions that left farmworkers out of labor laws. Both the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, passed in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, excluded farmworkers as well as domestic workers — groups that are largely comprised of people of color. And while farmworkers were made subject to the national minimum wage in the 1960s, they are not guaranteed Maine’s higher state minimum wage and don’t receive overtime pay.
Those exclusions were no accident, but were instead rooted in the racism of the 1930s.
“Farmworkers who travel thousands of miles from their homes to feed us deserve nothing less than the legal protections afforded to all other working people,” Harnett told the committee, noting that many such workers in Maine come from other countries. “The treatment of field workers as people less deserving of basic legal protections in the eyes of the law is nothing less than a vestige of slavery.”
Harnett also told the committee that in his past work as a lawyer representing farmworkers, he has seen how a lack of labor protections often leads to adverse, low-paying conditions where workers cannot speak out without fear of being retaliated against by their employer.
The lack of protection is particularly unacceptable, Harnett said, given that farmworkers have been designated as essential workers during the pandemic.
He added that other states, including California and New York, have expanded labor protections to farmworkers. Maine should follow that example, he said.
“We have the chance to do better as a legislature, as a people and as a state. Passing this bill could be the first step in making that happen,” Harnett said.
Collective bargaining bill
Harnett emphasized that, if passed, LD 151 would not guarantee farmworkers a collective bargaining unit, but would simply give them the right to organize a union, which can be a long and difficult process.
More immediately, he said the bill would allow two or more farmworkers to approach their employer with concerns around conditions without being retaliated against.
Mike Guare, an attorney in the farmworker unit at Pine Tree Legal Assistance, spoke about that issue in his testimony in support of the bill. He told the committee about a situation where he was advising farmworkers who had an extremely abusive supervisor. Guare said he told the workers that their most direct option was to speak with the farm owner about the issue. But he also had to inform the workers that there was nothing in the law to stop their employer from firing them after they brought up the issue.
“I looked around the room and I could literally see the hope in their eyes die when I had to tell them if they took that step of speaking with their employer about a problem they were having, that they might not have a job the next day,” Guare said.
Another voice in support of the bill was Cate Blackford, public policy director at the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project). Blackford testified in favor of LD 151 as well as Harnett’s bill to make farmworkers subject to wage and hour laws. Passing the bills, she said, would both right the injustices of the past and put money in people’s pockets that would help stimulate the economy.
“The lack of worker protections in agriculture is a direct result of our nation’s history of unpaid labor,” Blackford said. “Addressing that injustice is both a moral issue and an economic issue. As with all workers, when you raise minimum wages, you generate economic growth. These are protections that we can and should offer to our agricultural workers.”
Not everyone who testified Wednesday was in favor of the bill, as the measure drew a number of people in opposition, including farmers as well as industry groups.
“Margins in agriculture are very tight,” Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said in testimony against the bill. “…With that, everything has a cost. Change has a cost no matter what that change is. And in this case, we’re concerned about the cost that this may have.”
Many of the farmers and groups testifying against the bill also argued that the legislation is not needed because they already treat their employees well, claiming that unions would damage what they referred to as the productive relationship they currently have with their workers. That argument is a well-trodden point employers often use to push back against unions and workplace organizing.
Other critics said allowing farmworkers to form unions would give them the power to hold farm owners hostage with demands for better pay or labor conditions by withholding their labor at critical points in the harvest process.
Rep. Amy Roeder (D-Bangor), a member of the committee, pushed back against that argument, stating that many unions — including the one she is part of — are able to have collaborative relationships with employers and reach fair agreements.
Another argument against the bill came from Julie Ann Smith, executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau, who in response to a question from a legislator claimed that farmworkers could be “all of a sudden required to become part of a labor union” as a result of the bill.
But as multiple people testifying pointed out, the bill does not require farmworkers to join a union. Instead, it simply gives them the option to organize a union drive.
Harnett’s other bill, LD 1022, which would make farmworkers employees subject to wage and hour laws, also received a hearing Wednesday. While many farms already pay above minimum wage, according to testimony at the hearing, farmworkers are not currently guaranteed Maine’s base wage and don’t receive overtime for the long hours they often work.
Harnett reiterated the discriminatory origin of the exclusion of farmworkers from labor laws of the 1930s. In addition, given farmworkers’ important role in helping provide food to communities, Harnett argued they deserve to be covered by wage and hour laws, as other workers are.
“Why are the hours that farmworkers toil to feed us worth less than those of other working people? There’s no good answer to that question,” Harnett said.
A number of others also testified in favor of the bill. Michael Kebede, policy counsel at the ACLU of Maine, said the legislation would help begin to address systemic disparities in the state.
“All the changes that this bill would create and that LD 151 would create would almost certainly lead to a higher quality of life for the people of color that sustain some of our vital industries,” Kebede said. “These changes would advance racial justice while also giving our low-income workers the kind of disposable income that will spur growth in other sectors of the economy. This bill will create a rising tide that will lift all boats.”
James Myall, policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, added that despite being designated as essential workers during the pandemic, farmworkers are among the worst paid people in the state.
“Maine’s farmworkers are so poorly paid that they’re much more likely to live in poverty than other Mainers. According to our analysis, about a quarter of Maine farm hands are in poverty,” Myall said in his testimony supporting both bills.
As with the organizing bill, the wage and overtime legislation drew testimony in opposition from a number of farmers. Many said that while they’d like to pay farmworkers more money, most farms are only just scraping by. With those economic challenges, the farmers testifying said the legislation would put them in an even more difficult financial situation.
In particular, myriad farmers expressed particular concern about the overtime provision in the law. Currently, many farmworkers work far more than 40 hours a week, farm operators said. But if the law passed, farm owners said they would likely not be able to pay overtime rates and would need to cut hours for workers so they don’t reach overtime levels. Farmers argued that this would make Maine less attractive for those who want to work as many hours as possible.
“If we reduced H2A workers to 40 hours, they would not come,” said Ian Jerolmack, a Bowdoinham farmer, in testimony against the bill. “Almost every H2A worker in the USA comes to work many, many hours, and save and save, and then go home.”
Adam Goode, legislative and political director at the Maine AFL-CIO, which supports both of Harnett’s bills, acknowledged that farmers face difficult economic headwinds. However, he said that doesn’t mean that workers don’t deserve basic labor protections.
“We recognize that farming is incredibly difficult work, that the economics of farming, especially family farming, are very challenging and that farmers work incredibly hard in Maine to scratch out an existence,” Goode said. “That is all true, and it is also true that workers should have fundamental rights.”
In addition, Harnett pointed out that wage and overtime protections have been extended to farmworkers in a number of places without dealing a fatal blow to farming.
“Other states have enacted laws that provide farmworkers with both minimum wage and overtime protections, and agriculture survives,” Harnett said.
Top photo: Allagash Brewing, Creative Commons via flickr
A coalition of grassroots organizations in New England joined state and federal lawmakers in calling on President Joe Biden to pass the THRIVE Agenda, a roadmap developed by 150 progessive groups nationwide directing lawmakers to use $10 trillion in federal funds to address the climate crisis while empowering workers, communities of color, tribal nations, and people affected by the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Wednesday, members of Renew New England, a grassroots coalition that is pushing for the key policy goals of the Green New Deal in the state houses of New England, joined Maine state Rep. Rebecca Millett (D-Cape Elizabeth), U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) in a virtual press conference. They said a $2.25 trillion infrastructure package unveiled by the Biden administration this week is a welcome start, but even more robust investment is needed to rise to the challenge of the moment.
“We are facing a series of intersecting crises — climate change, a public health pandemic, racial injustice, and economic inequality. We know that we cannot defeat any of these crises alone. We must develop a roadmap for recovery that addresses them all at the same time,” said Markey.
“I am working with the Biden administration to continue to push for a bold and ambitious final package, to push for a plan that meets the scale and scope of this crisis and sets bold and aggressive standards for our recovery,” Markey said. “That’s what our THRIVE Act is all about. We need a plan that will put people back to work, put money back in pockets, but will also fight systemic racism, protect public health, and drastically cut down on climate pollution. We can’t go back to business-as-usual.”
The THRIVE agenda, which stands for “Transform, Heal, and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy,” has a similar goal as the Green New Deal, introduced by Markey and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019.
The new spending agenda strives to meet the most ambitious target set in the Paris agreement, eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The plan is designed to do so through creating close to 16 million new union jobs.
The THRIVE agenda is backed by groups like the Sunrise Movement, Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Movement for Black Lives. The agenda also has support in the U.S. Senate with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) igned on as co-sponsors.
Addressing climate, jobs, and housing crises in Maine
During Wednesday’s briefing, Millett echoed Markey’s remarks on the need for federal leadership and highlighted how the funds would be used to address urgent unmet needs at the state level.
“Here in Maine we’re fighting as hard as we can to address the climate crisis, rampant inequality, and racial injustice but we also need Congress and the Biden administration to pass the THRIVE agenda to make economy-wide investments tackling injustice, pollution, and joblessness,” she said.
In the Maine Legislature, Millett is the lead sponsor of LR 1448, a proposed $100 million housing bond for the next two years to fund the construction of 20,000 energy-efficient affordable housing units to help address Maine’s housing shortage.
“We all agree that everyone needs a decent place to live. But more than 20,000 Maine households don’t have one. And our housing crisis isn’t just about housing,” Millett said. “What do I mean by that? Well, Maine has a severe shortage of affordable rental homes — which means tens of thousands of Mainers need to make tough choices every month to make the rent.”
The Renew New England coalition includes 350 Maine, A Climate to Thrive, Jewish Action Maine, Maine Women’s Lobby, New Mainers Alliance, Presente! Maine, Raise-Op Housing Cooperative and Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project), as well as tribal leaders from the Penobscot Nation, among others.
The bond proposal would not only begin to tackle Maine’s housing crisis while hitting target environmental building standards, it would also help boost the state’s declining workforce, Millett said.
“Housing in our state is routinely built by underpaid workers with inadequate labor protections, forcing many construction workers and tradespeople to commute to other states for work that pays enough for them to live on,” she explained. “Because working conditions in Maine are sub-par for skilled construction workers and tradespeople, Maine has a depleted workforce necessary to build the kind of affordable housing we need.”
“By raising the wages and benefits of these highly-skilled jobs and growing the pipeline of skilled workers, we can ease Maine’s affordable housing shortage today while making progress toward meeting Maine’s long-term and growing need for good jobs with fair pay and great benefits and helping build Maine’s future skilled workforce. All while taking steps to address the climate crisis,” Millett said.
Top photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images
During much of the pandemic, Heather Foran was a bartender at Timber Steakhouse in Portland. But that changed late last year when Foran said she was removed from the schedule after expressing concerns about the restaurant’s virus safety policies.
Throughout the pandemic, Foran said the owner created a culture that was dismissive of the dangers of the virus, with people often not wearing masks prior to shifts or in the kitchen and only putting face coverings on when interacting with customers. That attitude came to a head in November when her two fellow bartenders both called out sick with COVID-19 symptoms at a time when Foran said the virus was known to be spreading around the Old Port area. Foran said one of the bartenders had recently been to places with positive cases while the other bartender’s girlfriend worked at a restaurant that had seen virus cases.
Foran said the owner told her to come into work early to fill in. She was uneasy with the situation. “I basically told him, ‘I don’t feel comfortable about this. I don’t think we should be open,’” Foran recalled.
The owner initially said he couldn’t make her come in if she didn’t feel comfortable, Foran said. But a couple days later, Foran said he took her off the work schedule, telling her that he couldn’t have people working who were scared to come in. He told her they could talk in a few weeks about the situation. But Foran said he never reached out again, and Foran also decided she didn’t want to work for him.
While Foran wasn’t technically fired, she said she was punished for speaking out about an unsafe work environment. “I talked with a lawyer who basically was like, ‘Yes that’s retaliation,’” said Foran, who ultimately decided not to pursue a legal case because she wanted to engage in organizing restaurant workers instead.
DrewChristopher Joy, leadership development coordinator at the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, said Foran, who is co-chair of the group’s board, had told them at the time about the conditions and culture at the restaurant. Joy said Foran’s experience is a clear example of employees “being asked to do things that clearly aren’t aligned with what you’re supposed to do” when people at a workplace have COVID-19 symptoms.
In an email, Timber Steakhouse owner Noah Talmatch confirmed he took Foran off the schedule but said that decision came after Foran told him she didn’t want to work at the restaurant because of concerns about having a public-facing job during the pandemic. He said he told her she was welcome to come back but didn’t hear from her again. Talmatch also pushed back against Foran’s allegations about Timber’s virus policies, denying that the restaurant was lax in its protocols. “ALL employees wear a mask for the entirety of their shifts and we follow ALL of the State and CDC recommended guidelines and procedures,” Talmatch wrote, adding that “no employee was asked to work here if they did not feel comfortable.”
Objections to workplace conditions, such as those brought forward by Foran, are not uncommon. Laura White, a partner at the Maine law firm White & Quinlan — which represents plaintiffs — said she has seen an uptick in complaints from workers during the pandemic. And even before the pandemic, many allegations of unsafe or discriminatory working conditions had been lodged in Maine, as Beacon previously reported.
Even so, many whistleblowers struggle to have their story heard in court, an issue Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) hopes to address with a bill he’s re-introducing this legislative session.
The legislation, which has not yet been finalized, has the same intent as previous whistleblower protection bill LD 1693, although some changes have been made based on the public hearings and work sessions conducted on that bill, Jackson said in an interview.
Oftentimes, Jackson said, state agencies don’t have the capacity to investigate employment violation complaints. His bill would make it easier for workers to have their day in court by expanding who they can turn to in such situations, Jackson explained.
“Where you don’t have the right to take a private right of action against the company because the Department of Labor has jurisdiction and the state agency, for whatever reason, doesn’t go forward then you have the right to get a private attorney to take up your case,” he said of the intent behind the bill. “I think that’s really, really important.”
One of the biggest beneficiaries of that type of change to the law would be workers who have signed contracts that force them to resolve legal disputes outside of the courts, in private arbitration. An estimated 56% of employers in Maine may be having new hires sign such forced arbitration agreements, according to numbers from 2018. As Beacon previously reported, workers who have been unable to take legal action in a court because of this type of contract include a Burger King employee in Maine who was sexually assaulted at work and a Black construction worker who experienced pervasive racist harassment at his job in Maine, among many others.
State agencies, such as the Department of Labor or the Attorney General’s Office, are not bound by forced arbitration agreements. But that often doesn’t help whistleblowers, as Jackson said there has been a systematic approach to strangle the parts of government that are supposed to be looking out for workers, particularly during the LePage administration. That’s why a change to the current system is needed, he explained.
“It’s not an excuse for government to say we don’t have the resources to take up your complaint,” Jackson said. “At that point, you should have the ability to go forward with a civil suit by hiring your own attorney.”
‘We really need strong laws to protect workers’
White said arbitration agreements are often put into worker contracts without an opportunity for potential employees to push back. She added that in cases when a worker who has lodged a complaint has signed such an agreement, the playing field is often tipped toward employers in any arbitration process.
“There’s just a sense that it will be skewed in favor of the employer and that’s of course why they prefer to have those clauses in agreements,” she said.
Such agreements also often prevent law firms from representing a worker, White added. But that limitation on getting private representation usually comes as news to whistleblowers, she said.
“Overwhelmingly … the client is not really aware of what the agreement provides, what they signed up for, and the fact that it really limited their rights to get their own attorney and move forward,” White explained.
Rep. Mike Sylvester (D-Portland), House chair of the Labor and Housing Committee, said the problem that needs to be addressed is that there are few overall safeguards for workers who want to expose wrongdoing in the workplace.
That’s one reason why Sylvester has introduced LD 553, an act to end at-will employment, and why he supports Jackson’s effort to expand safeguards for whistleblowers.
“We really need strong laws to protect workers so that when they’re advocating for themselves and their co-workers and the public, they are able to do so without fear of losing their job or being retaliated against in some other way,” he said.
Such protections are available for workers with union contracts, Sylvester noted. But even as 2020 saw an increase in the number of workers in Maine who are part of a union, only 16.7% of Mainers have a bargaining unit advocating for them.
“Who’s looking out for the non-union workers?” Sylvester asked. “And that’s where bills like President Jackson’s can come in to say every worker should have the protection to see wrongdoing and alert the proper authorities.”
Joy, at the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, said the issue of protecting workers is especially crucial right now given the uptick in employment complaints the Workers Center has seen during the pandemic, particularly around employers not always following state COVID-19 health guidelines.
“Anything that can be done that provides workers with more support to deal with issues in their workplace is important because I think there’s almost nothing that a worker can do right now if something illegal or unsafe is happening in their workplace,” Joy said. “So we’re very much in favor of strengthening the ability of workers to respond.”
Photo: Maine Senate President Troy Jackson testifying before the Labor Committee in 2019 | Official photo
Have you seen Oscar’s Oasis yet? It’s a wonderful French-Korean animated TV series featuring an unlucky but determined lizard as its protagonist — I find him especially endearing, as he reminds me of my chihuahua, Oliver, for some odd reason. The first episode, entitled Bad Trip, introduces us to Oscar as he struggles to access water in the desert. After an exhaustive search, he finally stumbles onto a sealed water bottle…but opening it proves to be an entirely new challenge.
There’s a clear analogy between Oscar’s challenges and what so many Mainers are experiencing as they encounter the state’s unemployment system — like the little lizard’s water, the support folks desperately need is tantalizingly close, but all too often, unemployed people struggle against seemingly insurmountable barriers to access it.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss these challenges with people who have found themselves unemployed, many for the first time, as a result of COVID-19. The Maine AFL-CIO, which has been a leader in unemployment assistance and advocacy, put out a call for input regarding the good, the bad, and the ugly of Maine’s UI system. When I first encountered the state’s platform, fresh from a long career in the tech industry, my user experience sensibilities were seriously offended. I knew that, like most state unemployment systems, the technology would likely be terribly janky (in software parlance), but I was surprised at just how poorly the software facilitated a user’s journey with the Department of Labor. Needless to say, I was eager to contribute to a dialog about how to help “fix” Maine’s system.
I guess I was both lucky in my own experience and naive about those of many others, because during the information session, I heard the personal stories of everyday people who are caught in a nightmare of broken systems and insufficient staffing levels that have been unable to keep pace with the burdens created by the pandemic. Confronted by crashing phone systems, slow computer processing, confusing application systems, and not enough qualified folks to provide needed support, Mainers in desperate need of promised — indeed, earned — financial supports are instead met with unprocessed claims, missing benefits, and tremendous uncertainty.
One woman, who along with her self-employed artist husband, reported that her family has seen just $176 in benefit payments under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program in the nine months since her first application, and the Department of Labor can’t even determine why that particular payment was disbursed. She joined the information session straight from two frustrating hours on the phone with a Department of Labor staff member working to get retrospective benefits as her family’s savings finally trickled away. Like Oscar, she could see the water in the bottle…she just couldn’t drink it.
Last spring, former state Senator (and now Secretary of State) Shenna Bellows criticized the system in a Bangor Daily News editorial, saying, “The system isn’t user-friendly; it’s user-adversarial.” Let’s put the responsibility where it largely belongs: on the LePage administration’s decision to invest $90 million in the ReEmployME system, a platform that lacks the flexibility it needs to support different types of benefit administration, including many of the COVID relief programs. And former Governor Paul LePage also demonstrated his hostility toward the needs of individuals who were unemployed by consistently reducing staffing at the Department of Labor, leaving the organization with half of the employees it had in 2009 at the start of the pandemic.
An important part of what I’ve learned as I pursue my master’s degree in social work involves what’s called the principle of less eligibility, which was a cornerstone of the British government’s Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. In essence, there was an active policy of deterring people from claiming poor relief, one that I think is reflected in the choices we’ve made regarding the design and staffing of our benefit application systems today.
Alix Gould-Werth, Director of Family Economic Security Policy for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, says our current situation is the result of conscious choices made by policymakers at the state and federal level that have purposefully prevented the creation of a modern and efficient system for benefit disbursement. Creating a suboptimal experience that is intentionally opaque and confusing discourages people from seeking assistance, as evidenced by an Economic Policy Institute survey that found that for every ten people who successfully filed for UI benefits, three or four were unable to get through, and two never even tried because it was perceived to be too difficult. What terrible barriers to erect for Maine’s people in crisis…and losing one’s income is surely a crisis.
This is why House Speaker Ryan Fecteau’s proposed legislation, entitled “An Act To Strengthen the Unemployment Insurance System To Better Serve Maine Workers” (LR 1631) is so important. Introduced this week, Speaker Fecteau’s bill incorporates feedback from Mainers with firsthand experience of the UI system during the pandemic, many of whom are freelance and gig workers, self-employed small business owners, independent contractors, and working poor who string together enough part-time work to make ends meet. Modernizing our systems will better meet the needs of today’s workforce as it faces modern-day realities and challenges.
Specifically, this bill acknowledges the reality that, pre-pandemic, only one in four Maine workers qualified for unemployment insurance and seeks to create a process by which to expand the number of people who are eligible for benefits, including workers who are partially unemployed. It addresses the challenges of raising a family while unemployed by increasing supplemental benefits for dependent children for the first time in two decades. It provides a safety net for people forced to leave work due to compelling personal reasons like the loss of child care or lack of transportation. It requires employers to file UI claims for workers impacted by a mass layoff or reduction in hours and penalizes them if they discourage a worker from applying for benefits. And it makes a worker’s experience of the unemployment system a little friendlier, with an Unemployment Navigator program that leverages labor and community groups to help people access benefits more easily.
In short, this bill is the equivalent of twisting open a chilled bottle of water in the desert for the people whose thirst we must slake, and it deserves our vocal support. Oscar, the little animated lizard, would certainly agree.
Image: Oscar struggles to open a bottle of water. | Screenshot of Oscar’s Oasis “Bad Trip”
When Richard Evans was campaigning in 2020 for a seat in the Maine House of Representatives in deep-red Piscataquis County, he called up a voter who had some questions for him.
Evans, a Black doctor and a Democrat running in an overwhelmingly white county, started the conversation by telling the man that he would answer his questions honestly, even if the responses weren’t what the man wanted to hear. The two had a wide ranging discussion, touching on health care, jobs, education and family life.
“At the end of the conversation, he said, ‘I am a lifelong Republican, I have never voted for a Democrat in my life. But because you were upfront and honest with me, that meant a lot,’” Evans said, adding that the man committed to getting friends and family to vote for the Democrat as well.
“So I met him where he was and he understood where I was coming from and I understood where he was coming from,” Evans said.
That commitment to openness and honesty served Evans well, as the Democrat went on to win his race for the House District 120 seat — which includes the municipalities of Atkinson, Brownville, Dover-Foxcroft, Lake View, Medford, Milo and Orneville Township — despite running in a county that voted for former President Donald Trump by a wide margin.
And while Evans was likely the beneficiary of a three-way contest that featured a Republican and a conservative independent, he said the lesson from the campaign is that taking the time to listen to people and speaking with them honestly can transcend ideology and political affiliation.
Evans’ experience is indicative of an edict that has perhaps become cliché but still rings true, especially in tight-knit communities around the state: All politics is local. And it begs the question, can more Democrats win in rural areas of Maine?
Following a 2020 election in which Trump won Maine’s largely rural 2nd Congressional District for a second time, Sen. Susan Collins rode to reelection in part by running up the score outside of southern and coastal Maine, and Republicans in the Maine Legislature solidified less-populated places in the state as their stronghold, Beacon sought to explore that question and better understand how progressives can build political power in rural Maine in the future.
In interviews with over a dozen people — including elected officials who have won in rural areas as well as those doing on-the-ground organizing — a narrative emerged: Democrats and progressives can compete across Maine.
In fact, a number have been able to win important races, such as Evans in Piscataquis County, Senate President Troy Jackson in Aroostook County, state Sen. Chloe Maxmin in Lincoln County, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in the 2nd District, and Craig Hickman in a recent state Senate special election. Most of those areas and counties were places where Trump and Collins also ran strong.
But along with those victories have been myriad defeats in rural Maine and a sense from organizers and candidates — both successful and unsuccessful — that a return to fundamentals is needed: A focus on knocking on voters’ doors, an emphasis on issues that resonate with voters across party lines, and a commitment by the state Democratic Party and other political organizations to invest more in less-populated areas of Maine.
Lay of the land in rural Maine
First, a couple of caveats. Maine as a whole has one of the highest white population percentages in the country, and that is even more true when talking about rural regions in the state. While some people of color do live in such areas, out of Maine’s five most rural counties — Piscataquis, Lincoln, Washington, Aroostook and Somerset — only Washington County was less white than the state average of 94.4%.
Still, rural Maine is not a monolith, as a number of people Beacon spoke with made a point to acknowledge. What is true in Oxford County may not be the case in Aroostook County and, in fact, micro-level politics exist within counties as well.
However, when it comes to the political lay-of-the-land in Maine’s rural areas, many people Beacon interviewed told a similar story of a region that historically voted blue but has gradually become redder over the years.
While that trend became obvious in 2016 after Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win the 2nd Congressional District since George H.W. Bush won the entire state in 1988, it predates the former president.
“We had a Trump before in Maine and his name was LePage,” said Isreal Mosley, an organizer in Kennebec County, referencing the state’s volatile former governor who was first elected in 2010, the same year a wave of conservative Tea Party candidates stormed to power across the country.
There are a number of explanations for the shift favoring candidates like Trump and Paul LePage in rural Maine. But for state Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), one of the primary drivers has been a frustration with politics as usual that both Trump and LePage managed to harness through inflammatory, xenophobic rhetoric.
As explained by the think tank Demos, the type of rhetoric used by politicians like Trump and LePage to stoke racial fears is a common tactic deployed by elites to turn working people of different races against one another.
But Berry said while support for figures like Trump and LePage in rural Maine has often taken the form of racialized resentment, he believes a lot of the frustrations tapped into by Republicans have roots in the economic hardships seen in many parts of the state.
“I don’t believe that the support for Trump or the support for LePage was primarily about hatred of others, although it often manifested itself that way … I think there are a lot of folks who supported Trump, who supported LePage and who feel left out of our current economy,” said Berry, whose district is primarily rural and features multiple towns that voted for Trump.
Maxmin, the young Democrat who defeated then-GOP Senate leader Dana Dow in 2020 in Lincoln County, agreed that Republicans like Trump have been able to activate an anger that has been building for a long time in rural areas. And Maxmin said those feelings have been compounded by national Democratic campaigns that have often done a poor job of explaining how their policies would help such regions.
“I don’t think Trump created it, I think he was a response to it,” she said of the conservative shift in rural Maine. “In 2018, since it was so close to the 2016 election, I heard a lot of people talk about how [Hillary] Clinton’s narrative really felt academic and intellectual and just talking about these big ideas that weren’t really connected to what was happening in our community. But when people heard Trump speak, they heard him speaking to the working man and the small business owner and speaking to a former day of glory in our rural communities that we feel has passed us by.”
‘It’s a bit like firefighting’
Given that backdrop and historical progression, how should Democrats and progressives move forward in rural Maine?
To Berry, the party needs to reclaim its mantle as a champion of working people. Part of that effort, Berry said, should be crafting a more disciplined message that avoids a tendency on the left to judge and write-off those who have expressed support for things Republicans like Trump and LePage have said over the years.
“It’s a little bit like firefighting. I’m not a firefighter but they tell me that the idea is to aim the water at the base of the flames, at what is burning, not at the flames themselves. And I feel like we often as Democrats are aiming at the flames themselves,” he said. “We’re criticizing and belittling and debating and getting angry with people about things they say which are not really the things they care about the most.”
The thing people care most about?
“It’s the economy,” Berry said. “People want a society where anyone can succeed and where there is a strong ladder of opportunity for all. And they want to feel that their own standard of living is at least as good as their parent’s generation. And there’s just no reason in this day and age that we can’t accomplish that.”
Tina Riley, a former Democratic legislator whose district straddled Franklin and Androscoggin counties, agreed, saying the path forward for Democrats in rural areas “rests with strong, progressive economic policy.”
Riley, who was defeated in her reelection campaign in 2020, said, “We need to drive the conversation back to why we’re Democrats in the first place” and emphasize a commitment to an economy where the wealthy pay their fair share and no one is left behind. That type of message, Riley said, can attract voters in rural Maine who historically would have been Democrats but have increasingly turned toward Republicans.
Another issue that multiple people Beacon spoke with said has crossover appeal with rural voters is ensuring that everyone has access to health care. Patty Kidder, who ran unsuccessfully in 2020 for the Maine House as a Democrat in the Sanford area, said that topic came up repeatedly in conversations with voters.
“How am I going to afford health care? What am I going to do if I get laid off from my job and I no longer have health insurance? And they are also concerned that if they do have a job and they have insurance through that job, that their copayments and deductibles are too high. That was a really big issue that just crossed party lines,” Kidder said.
Another issue voters across the spectrum find common ground on is protecting Maine’s natural beauty and environment, multiple people said.
Drew Gattine, who recently took over as chair of the Maine Democratic Party after serving as a Westbrook-area state representative, agreed that candidates — including those in rural Maine — should emphasize why they are Democrats.
“We just need to continue to show people in communities across the state that we’re the people that share their values,” he told Beacon in January. “And our values are supporting Maine people, working for fair wages, making sure you get a good education no matter where you live in the state and making sure that you have access to health care.”
One aspect that can complicate that calculus, however, is the racism that politicians like LePage in Maine and Trump across the country have activated. That’s particularly relevant in a state like Maine that has both an overwhelmingly white population and a growing population of color.
Even as the summer of 2020 saw a national resurgence of protests for racial justice after the police murder of George Floyd, Evans — from Piscataquis County — said most people he spoke with were focused on other issues.
Still, Evans said even though race wasn’t a common topic raised by voters he talked to, he said that it’s important to continue to discuss the issue and not simply sweep the country’s problems with systemic racism under the rug.
That’s a message the think tank Demos has also emphasized. In a paper, the group highlighted research that shows that progressives should not separate issues of race from economic messaging, arguing that the “key for cross-racial solidarity, voter engagement, and policy victories is addressing the connections between racial divisions and economic hardship.”
Kathryn Harnish, who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat in 2020 for an Aroostook County-area seat in the Maine House, said building a multi-racial, multi-class movement in rural Maine is a worthy goal. However, Harnish cautioned that such a movement won’t be built overnight and that progressives should be careful to not frame conversations about racial justice around discounting struggles white people in rural areas may have experienced.
“I don’t want to excuse anything or give people a free pass because they quote-unquote don’t know any better, but sometimes I think running at it head on just makes people more entrenched, so that’s a challenge,” Harnish, who is a contributor to Beacon, said.
For Maxmin, her approach to addressing issues of race while campaigning was to be upfront about her values but also to acknowledge that societal struggles are not a zero-sum situation.
“I support the Black Lives Matter movement and I understand where that movement is coming from and what it’s trying to achieve and I also understand that in my very white community, there are serious struggles here that are incredibly challenging and really, really deep and systemic as well,” she said. “So, I think both of those realities live in my mind.”
Putting boots on the ground
In addition to focusing on popular issues, political candidates and organizers said there is no substitute for person-to-person voter contact, arguing that an aggressive boots-on-the-ground strategy in rural Maine could help Democrats and progressives win in such areas.
While that type of strategy became more difficult in the 2020 election cycle with the onset of the COVID pandemic, some Democrats were still able to do door-knocking, perhaps none to greater effect than Maxmin in her successful campaign in Lincoln County.
Maxmin, who was first elected to the legislature as a state representative in 2018, said a core tenet of her campaign was talking with voters in-person (in a COVID-safe manner).
“An extraordinary amount of effort went into connecting with people and taking the time to get people’s experiences, ideas, hopes, frustrations and problems,” Maxmin said.
During the campaign, one thing that struck Maxmin was how often she spoke with voters who had never before been contacted by anyone associated with the Democratic Party. Maxmin said that reality was part of a general feeling of frustration many rural Mainers expressed about the way both parties run campaigns — a frustration she said was amplified by the 2020 U.S Senate race between Collins and Democrat Sara Gideon, which turned into a high-dollar mudslinging contest, with both candidates blanketing the airwaves with negative ads.
But success in reaching rural voters doesn’t stop at winning an election, Maxmin said. She said it’s also important for candidates to show constituents that they are keeping those discussions in mind while in office. One way Maxmin has done that is by introducing bills based on issues brought up in conversations on the campaign trail.
Berry agreed, saying door-knocking and being responsive to constituents must be key aspects of the progressive strategy. Doing so can often transcend differences in ideology, he said.
“I’m living proof that strong progressives on social and economic issues can and do win in conservative areas,” he said.
Liesha Petrovich, a volunteer in Oxford County with Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project), also said in-person organizing is crucial for progressives. However, she added that the deficits Democrats face in rural Maine won’t go away overnight, pointing out that the party didn’t win any legislative races in Oxford County in 2020. Petrovich also acknowledged that the polarized reality of national politics has permeated the state, including rural Maine, making it more difficult for progressives to reach some arch-conservatives who express hatred for anyone associated with the word Democrat.
To help overcome such challenges, Petrovich said there must be a long-term commitment by the state Democratic Party and grassroots groups to invest in candidate recruitment, training and campaign infrastructure in regions across the state.
However, a number of people Beacon spoke with, including Petrovich, said that type of support hasn’t occurred in recent election cycles.
“We don’t have the investments in candidates that we should be having,” she said.
Harnish, from Aroostook County, was also frustrated by the lack of resources provided to candidates in rural areas during the lead-up to the 2020 election.
“I was very disappointed in the investment that was made in races here in the county by the state Democratic Party,” she said. “I had almost zero support from the party, a little bit of support from my county committee, none at a state level and none from the House Democratic Campaign Committee.”
Harnish said she was initially disheartened by the results of her run, an election she lost by a 68% to 32% margin. However, after thinking it over, she began to see those results in a different light. Nearly one out of every three people had voted for her, and with only several thousand people casting ballots in each House race in Maine, that provides a base to build off, Harnish said.
The takeaway message for Harnish: Democrats can win in rural Maine. There’s just more political infrastructure to be constructed.
“I’ve talked with a number of people,” Harnish said, “And I say, ‘Please don’t forget about us up here, don’t write us off.’”
‘It has to be about engaging people’
Some efforts to build political power in rural Maine have already gotten underway, with local, grassroots groups springing into action over the past couple years.
One such group — which does work in all 16 counties in the state — is Suit Up Maine. Kelli Whitlock Burton, the co-leader of the organization, said one lesson she has learned from her time with the group and from her experience volunteering for Maxmin’s 2020 campaign is that organizing in rural Maine has to be about meeting people where they are and being involved in the community.
“What we do to turn out voters has to be about more than turning out the votes, it has to be about engaging people,” Burton, a Waldoboro resident, said.
An additional organization working in rural Maine is Take Action Bethel, an Indivisible group that emerged during the Trump presidency. Emily Ecker, a member of the group, said the organization has a listserv of around 60 members.
Another activist working in rural Maine is Marcia Sharp, who did volunteer political organizing in Oxford County during the 2020 election cycle with a group of women who referred to themselves as “the madwomen.” Sharp said while none of the Democratic legislative candidates won in Oxford County, most weren’t defeated in landslides, potentially opening the door for such candidates to win elections there in the future.
For Trudy Miller, a volunteer organizer in Waldo County who created the organization Engage Waldo, one potential key to winning in rural Maine is to start from the bottom up. Miller said races for school board or select board are local contests progressives can win and that running in those types of elections may help them develop connections with voters that could help during a run for the legislature or another office.
But along with that, Miller said a key prerequisite for competing in rural Maine is for politicians to convey their close connections to the places they’re running in.
“I think it’s really important in Maine that candidates are perceived as deeply rooted in their community,” she said. “People care so much about that.”
Top photo: Chloe Maxmin campaigning in 2020 | Senator Chloe Maxmin Facebook page
Earlier this year, the Portland Museum of Art eliminated 15 “on-call” gallery ambassador positions in the midst of a unionization effort among museum staff, raising questions about whether the layoffs were deliberately timed to hamper the campaign and deny possible union representation to the very positions that were eliminated.
It’s not the first time museum management has executed such a reorganization. Both times, in 2016 and now, a dozen or more employees were laid off and offered the opportunity to apply for one of fewer new full-time positions being created.
In December 2020, eligible members of PMA’s staff participated in an election approved by the National Labor Relations Board. The election was to determine if United Auto Workers Local 2110 of the Technical, Office and Professional Union would represent the museum employees in negotiating wages, benefits and working conditions with PMA management.
The counting of the votes was delayed, however, after the museum appealed the eligibility of gallery ambassadors to vote in this election, arguing that their duties include security which excludes them from sharing a union with other non-security personnel.
Local 2110 contends that PMA is stalling. Tom Meiklejohn, an attorney representing the union, asserts that in late November PMA entered “a last minute appeal so that counting of the ballots would be held up until the appeal has been settled.” The museum’s appeal, according to union president Maida Rosenstein, “is denying people their democratic right to organize and bargain over their terms of employment, to have a voice in the workplace.” She characterizes PMA’s action as “obstructionist.”
“Frankly,” Rosenstein added, “I call it union-busting.”
The gallery ambassadors’ eligibility to vote goes to the heart of PMA’s repudiation of the December election and the museum employees’ struggle for union representation.
PMA Director of Strategic Communications and Public Relations Graeme Kennedy stands firm on the security responsibilities of gallery ambassadors. He says that they are not just responsible for visitor support services, thus bolstering the museum’s position that “[a]ny staff who have security functions are not eligible [to vote].”
Legal precedent allows employers to make this claim. In fact, Section 9(b)(3) of the National Labor Relations Act does not require any employer to recognize a union that includes a mix of security and non-security personnel. The NLRB, consequently, will not certify a bargaining unit that does. In the fall, however, NLRB’s regional office board decided that gallery ambassadors are not security guards, that they were eligible to vote in the December election.
PMA’s Kennedy expresses concern that the union is deliberately deceiving the public on the gallery ambassadors’ voting eligibility. He warns, “not to be misled by the union’s narrative.” But two former on-call gallery ambassadors – Suzanne Murphy and another anonymous on-call worker — said that they never received security training and never worked in the galleries. According to them, several guard positions had been eliminated in the summer and the few guards that were retained became part of the gallery ambassador staff.
Union attorney Meiklejohn is confident that PMA’s contention that the on-call gallery ambassadors were ineligible to vote holds no legal merit. “The chances are very small that their appeal will be successful, even with a management-oriented NLRB dominated by Republican appointees,” he said. There are three Republican appointees and one Democratic appointee presently serving on the NLRB, according to JD Supra, an online repository for free legal information. “President Donald Trump did not appoint another Democrat to fill the second seat reserved for Democrats,” Meiklejohn explained.
“The law applied by the NLRB regional director followed well-established legal principles in deciding that gallery ambassadors are eligible to vote,” Meiklejohn added. He characterized PMA’s appeal as an effort “to slow down the election process.”
While the PMA’s appeal to the NLRB was pending, museum management decided to eliminate 15 of the on-call gallery ambassador positions— a move Meiklejohn describes as “an unfair labor practice.”
Kennedy claims that the elimination of the on-call gallery positions was part of an essential “restructuring” of the museum’s services. Kennedy also rejected the union’s characterization of the dismissals as “layoffs.” It is part of a carefully weighed, strategic “reduction of force” to enhance and bring greater continuity to the museum’s year-round experience, he explained. The museum created “five new full-time positions with full benefits” and, according to Kennedy, PMA management encouraged former on-call ambassadors to apply for these new jobs.
Even if one accepts PMA’s “restructuring” explanation, it is very curious that on-call gallery ambassadors were furloughed in December — just two weeks after the museum’s appeal in November. Then in January, less than a month after the union election and prior to the resolution of the PMA’s appeal of the eligibility of on-call gallery ambassadors to vote in the election, these same on-call workers were dismissed. At the very least, the timing of these developments is problematic. At worst, PMA management runs the risk of appearing disingenuous and unethical in its decision to “restructure” at this moment.
Union representatives do not believe PMA’s “restructuring” argument. They charge that PMA is posturing. They believe that the fifteen on-call gallery ambassadors dismissed in January lost their jobs because of the on-call gallery ambassadors’ union sympathies. Why, they ask, would PMA eliminate the on-call gallery ambassador positions in January 2021 when the positions were created barely six months earlier in the summer?
Meiklejohn points out that “PMA management testified at the NLRB hearing in October that the on-call gallery ambassador jobs [with security responsibilities] were created after years and years of planning.” Yet, he continues, “just a few months later after these workers sought union representation, management changed course completely, eliminating most of the new gallery ambassador jobs.”
In response to the union’s criticism, PMA released a statement disputing the union’s charge that the December election and the prospect of unionization of the museum’s staff was the real reason for the dismissal of the on-call workers.
“Although a union election was held in December of 2020, we will not know the results of that election until the NLRB has ruled on some very important technical issues related to who is allowed to be part of the union,” the statement read. “Until that ruling is issued, all of the ballots are impounded at the NLRB office. Right now, the UAW has no legal authority to represent any PMA employees.”
It continued, “Any suggestion that these decisions are related to a union election held last December or aimed at pro-union staff is misinformed, misguided, unfortunate, and irresponsible.”
In its public statement, PMA further explained Kennedy’s insistence that the staffing changes announced in January were a strategic structural plan: “The addition of [the new full-time gallery ambassador positions] is part of a more equitable, predictable, and sustainable staffing model—which also includes temporary/seasonal positions—that enables the museum to better serve our communities through planned, temporary hiring with clear timelines.”
A history of anti-worker actions
An investigative news article in The Bollard published September 2, 2018 also suggests that PMA management may be less than forthcoming about its present dispute with its employees’ organizing campaign. Editor Chris Busby reported that in December 2016, PMA laid off an entire department including staff “at the front desk, the museum store, and a small call center for membership.”
Tanner Skilton, a supervisor in the department at the time, told Busby: “I was asked to lay them off on Christmas Eve, and I said no…I said I wouldn’t lay people off on Christmas Eve, and they said, ‘Then you can do it on New Year’s Eve.’”
PMA Executive Director Mark Bessire, who remains in this position today, and Elizabeth Jones, then Director of Audience Engagement and Communications, rejected Skilton’s allegations. “Tanner was not directed to fire staff,” they were quoted as saying. They claimed that they had directly notified the workers of the layoffs. Skilton also criticized the culture at the museum, telling the paper that he had been previously hassled for his gender identity and that Jones had expressed only “superficial sympathy” for him, refusing to take further explicit action to support him in his discrimination complaint.
The apparent precipitous way in which PMA eliminated staff in 2016 and its recent summary dismissal of the 15 gallery ambassadors have some parallel. As in the January 2021 “reduction of force,” restructuring was PMA’s explanation for the layoffs in 2016. PMA also created fewer new full-time jobs in 2016 and offered the dismissed employees opportunities to apply for them, just as the museum has this time.
There are also some current complaints about PMA culture.
Suzanne Murphy said she once believed PMA was committed to its staff and to the fair treatment of workers. She applauded the museum’s decision to keep the part-time workers on the payroll through the spring and summer (with pandemic relief assistance from the federal government), calling the decision “very civilized.” She also enjoyed her former staff position as gallery ambassador. “I liked being the welcoming face of the museum,” she said.
Her view now is more complicated. “I still think of PMA as a major cultural institution but this whole thing has left a bad taste in my mouth,” she said. “Now, I don’t even want to go on its website.”
A second gallery ambassador did not want to be identified because this individual may need to apply for employment at the museum in the future. The former part-time employee pointed to PMA’s website where the museum suggests it is attentive to its employees’ concerns at “all-staff meetings and special listening sessions.” In reality, according to this former museum worker, staff meetings were “pretty intimidating.”
“They called us out and tried to make us share what we wanted from the union,” they said. Despite low wages, no benefits beyond earned sick day allowances and barely 30 hours of work over two weeks, this former PMA employee felt uncomfortable airing complaints. “We encouraged people not to speak at these meetings and to take up these questions with the union.”
Murphy agrees that PMA pressured the museum workers. “The staff meetings were online Zoom meetings,” she recalls. “[PMA management] insisted that everyone be ‘on camera.’ We were a captive audience.”
“They don’t understand that workers have rights. They don’t get it. It’s such a blind spot. Workers have the right to organize. It’s a matter of social justice,” Murphy said. “When they do these things, it just proves we need a union.”
PMA, according to the former employees, projects a wholesome image but its tactics over the fall and this winter belie such a benevolent characterization. The elimination of the on-call gallery ambassador positions is proof, they say, of PMA management’s anti-union sympathies.
If PMA staff in December had successfully voted to unionize, as the union representatives believe that they did, then PMA would have to negotiate with the union before eliminating any positions. In fact, by dismissing the on-call gallery ambassadors before its own appeal of their voting eligibility is resolved and the votes are counted, PMA has exposed itself to public skepticism and, according to union attorney Meiklejohn, potential legal liability.
PMA’s Kennedy disputes claims that the museum is anything less than forthcoming. Kennedy said that over the last five years PMA has striven “to be honest and transparent, to be inclusive, accessible and welcoming to visitors, members, staff and volunteers; everything we do is rooted in that fundamental principle,” he added.
He further objected to what he called the “misinformation that the union is espousing.” He said, “it is worth noting that as a result of adding more full-time, full-benefit positions, 63 out of 66 employees at the museum are benefit eligible.”
Cultural institutions and society
Since the very beginning of humankind, art has been central to the expression of our material and spiritual existence. Art, like language, expresses who we are. Cultural institutions — public and private alike — are critical to preserving great art for the benefit of society. Any institutional goal or motive that compromises the public’s access to its artistic patrimony imperils the immense social value of art.
The struggles of cultural workers to improve their wages and working conditions must be seen in this light. The union campaign at PMA, moreover, is part of a much larger movement in the arts community across the nation. In the last few years — from Los Angeles and San Francisco to New York and Boston — museum workers have been organizing for union representation.
Their struggles are part of the much larger struggle to reclaim our history as a nation, to ensure that democracy and justice are central to our national culture. Is the social agency of art — its power to transform us and our society — diminished when those who guide us through the museum experience are undervalued and underpaid? Are social responsibility and institutional integrity degraded when cultural workers cannot make a living wage? Do collection, preservation and exhibition of great works of art outweigh the rights of museum workers to organize a union? If they do, and the union struggle at PMA suggests that its management does, then are cultural institutions further distancing the arts from the lives of all of us?
Photo: The entrance to The Portland Museum of Art, featuring Robert Indiana’s sculpture “Seven.” | Paul VanDerWerf, Creative Commons via flickr
Lawmakers in the Maine Legislature heard testimony Tuesday on bills that would require the wealthy to pay a more equitable share in taxes by creating a new income bracket and establishing a surcharge on high levels of money made from capital gains and dividends.
The legislation comes as research has shown that economic inequality has skyrocketed during the pandemic and that raising taxes on the wealthy would help states around the country recover more quickly from the crisis.
LD 495, introduced by state Rep. Laurie Osher (D-Orono), would increase the tax rate on the current top individual income bracket from 7.15% to 8.35%. The bill would also add a new bracket with a tax rate of 11.15% on income over $100,000 for single filers or married couples filing separately, $150,000 for a head of household and $200,000 for married couples filing joint returns or surviving spouses.
In her testimony Tuesday before the Taxation Committee, Osher said one of the biggest challenges Maine faces is generating enough revenue to fund current state services, programs to recover from the pandemic and initiatives to improve life in Maine in the future. LD 495 would help address that issue by yielding an estimated $300 million a year through making changes to the tax code that would only impact the wealthiest 12% of Mainers.
In her testimony, Osher also pointed to the damage done by tax cuts implemented by former Gov. Paul LePage, which largely benefited the wealthy and reduced revenue for crucial services such as public schools that have long been underfunded.
“Mainers deserve better,” Osher said. “This legislation would go a long way to help generate needed revenue without putting an undue burden on the people in our communities who are already struggling to keep up with bills. Middle income Mainers are already paying their fair share in taxes. It is just those at the top that are not.”
Another bill, LD 570, put forward by state Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), also aims to address that disparity. In testimony before the committee Tuesday, Berry said the bill would create a 3% surcharge on “the very highest net capital gains and dividend income levels.”
The measure would impact only 0.7% of the wealthiest people in Maine, Berry said, adding that it would benefit the state by raising revenue to provide “much-needed resources to improve Maine’s schools, strengthen our safety net and build ladders of opportunity.”
The Taxation Committee grouped the hearing on those two bills with LD 532, introduced by state Sen. Joe Baldacci (D-Penobscot). That bill would provide a credit to reduce income taxes by 10% for single filers and married couples filing individually who make under $60,000, heads of households who bring in under $90,000 and married couples filing jointly or surviving spouses who make under $120,000. The measure would also create an additional income bracket with a tax rate of 7.95% that would apply to single filers and married couples filing individually whose income exceeds $200,000, heads of households making more than $300,000 and married couples filing jointly and surviving spouses making more than $400,000.
‘A foundation for building a more ethical and equitable state’
A number of advocates testified in favor of LD 495 and LD 570, which are part of a mosaic of tax fairness bills that have been introduced this legislative session in an effort to balance Maine’s tax code, which asks the poorest in the state to pay more than the wealthiest. Last week, lawmakers on the Taxation Committee heard testimony on LDs 501 and 498, which would raise corporate income taxes and increase taxes on the wealthy, respectively. Mainers who have struggled during the pandemic told legislators during that hearing that the changes to the tax code are necessary to generate revenue to make investments in public programs that can help those most in need.
One person to submit testimony Tuesday was Annie Hikido, a faculty member in the Sociology Department at Colby College, who spoke in favor of LD 495 and LD 570. In her testimony, Hikido noted that many of her students come from privileged backgrounds that have allowed them to more easily weather the pandemic. That stands in contrast to what Hikido has noticed in parts of Waterville, where she has seen “apartment complexes with peeling paint and makeshift window repairs.”
Hikido said the tax fairness bills introduced by Osher and Berry would help ensure that all Mainers have the right to “healthy, meaningful lives” and not just those with access to intergenerational wealth.
“Raising taxes for the wealthy and funneling them into social services for those who were not born into riches is a foundation for building a more ethical and equitable state,” Hikido said.
Another person who submitted testimony in favor of the bills was Stephen Carnahan, a retired pastor who lives in Auburn. Carnahan said raising taxes on the wealthy could help bridge the inequality in Maine between those in poverty and those at the top of the income ladder, noting that “for the past 40 years our society has been funneling its wealth to the wealthy and away from those in the most need.”
“As a pastor, as a Mainer, and simply as a human being, I encourage your support of these two bills,” he said.
The committee also heard a variety of testimony in opposition to the tax fairness bills, with many of the same business and trade groups that opposed the tax bills heard last week also speaking in opposition to LD 495 and LD 570.
The arguments made Tuesday were also similar to those made against the other tax fairness measures, with those opposed to the legislation claiming that the bills would stifle economic growth in Maine, hurt business owners and make Maine a less attractive state for people to move to and do business in.
“We feel very strongly that increasing individual income taxes will impact jobs, investments and will ultimately shrink, not grow, Maine’s economy,” Linda Caprara of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce said in her testimony.
But Adam Zuckerman, the lobbyist for Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project), said it’s clear robust investments in public services are needed to help the state recover from the pandemic, noting that the austerity programs Maine pursued during the Great Recession hampered the state’s economic trajectory. Such investments will require that the wealthy pay a bit more, Zuckerman said in his testimony in support of LD 495 and LD 570.
“Fixing our tax code — starting with taking back tax breaks for the wealthy — will make it possible for us to invest in the things that provide opportunity for all families, and ensure every Mainer has a fair chance at a better future,” he said.
Zuckerman added that the need to avoid austerity politics and to ensure the wealthy pay their fair share has been made even more apparent by a provision in President Joe Biden’s recently passed COVID-19 relief package designed to discourage states from cutting taxes during the crisis. Zuckerman pointed out that Maine last week passed a supplemental budget that included around $150 million in tax cuts.
“Unless the wealthy pay their fair share, we could risk losing federal funds that are crucial to vaccinating Mainers, getting the virus under control, and helping our economy recover,” he said.
Photo: Heather Paul | Creative Commons via Flickr
Over 60 lawmakers, including Democratic leadership of both the Maine Senate and House, sent a letter last week to Maine Medical Center rebuking administrators’ attempts to discourage nurses at the state’s largest hospital from unionizing.
The letter, which was addressed to Maine Medical Center President Jeff Sanders, was signed by a wide range of Democratic lawmakers, including Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, as well as three independents.
Noting that some in the legislature recently received a letter outlining the hospital’s opposition to nurses unionizing, the lawmakers wrote, “Given that it is the policy of the United States Government to encourage Collective Bargaining, we were disappointed to see you dismiss the nurses’ reasonable and just demands.”
The group of legislators also expressed concern about Maine Medical Center’s decision to hire anti-union consultants in an attempt to convince nurses against forming a bargaining unit. The lawmakers wrote that they had heard from nurses “about being accosted in one-on-one anti-union meetings, dragged from patient care to listen to out of state anti-union consultants lecture them on why they should vote no for the democratic right to negotiate with their employer; and threatened by certain supervisors that they stand to lose benefits, or employment if they vote yes in the upcoming election.”
The lawmakers also blasted Maine Medical Center’s decision to vaccinate its out-of-state anti-union consultants — a decision that was a clear violation of the state’s vaccination policy.
They argued that while the hospital claims to respect nurses’ right to organize, the choice to hire anti-union consultants and the decision to publicly oppose unionization contradicts that claim.
“We expect better from our hospital,” the legislators wrote. “To repair the damage and restore trust, it is our collective opinion that the hospital should fire its union busters and take action to ensure that nurses at the hospital are able to vote freely and without Maine Med administration’s interference.”
Legislators added that they are prepared to intervene if Maine Medical Center tries to prevent nurses from unionizing.
“If you intend to take anything away from RNs — including their moral and legal right to a free and fair election — we will stand with the nurses against any such attempt,” the lawmakers wrote.
As Beacon previously reported, the nurses’ unionization push officially kicked off in January when they petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to join the Maine State Nurses Association, an affiliate of National Nurses United. An election will take place at the end of March to determine whether nurses will join the union.
Jackie Fournier, a registered nurse at Maine Medical Center, told Beacon in February that one concern nurses have with their work conditions is the calculations the hospital uses to determine how many nurses are needed at one time. Fournier said the problem is that those figures often don’t reflect the unpredictable nature of patient care.
In addition, nurses are organizing to negotiate with the hospital about wage increases, expanded time off and ending policies that contribute to burnout, such as forced overtime and rotating shifts. Nurses have also asked the hospital to improve COVID-19 safety precautions.
Photo: Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine. | via Maine Medical Center
As Mainers anxiously wait for their vaccinations, and legislators work to craft a state budget in response to one of the greatest economic crises of our lifetime, 57 Maine-based organizations joined forces to call on policymakers to embrace a “Vision for an Equitable Maine” to help Maine come back better than before. In a letter to legislators they urged them “to advance systemic change that moves us toward a more equitable Maine.”
Your community’s health and prosperity are dependent on our ability to ensure justice and achieve fairness in outcomes from our public systems. Since March of 2020, hundreds of individuals have contributed their expertise, insights, and perspectives to build a Vision for an Equitable Maine. Many see this moment as an opportunity to set a new path forward to make certain that all people reach their full potential.
The Vision for an Equitable Maine spans agendas and constituencies to look holistically at the system and policy changes needed to address inequities laid bare by COVID-19. The Vision provides a blueprint for the changes that are needed in 13 areas, including healthcare, education, housing, our environment, racial equity, income equality, public safety, democracy reform, and workers’ health and safety. Mainers have united around these shared goals:
Leaders from diverse organizations across Maine have helped create this vision.
Safiya Khalid, community resource coordinator at Gateway Community Services Maine, said, “The pandemic has shown so clearly how inequality hurts us all. We have to really take hold of this opportunity to build a more resilient future where everyone has the chance to reach their full potential. Gateway strives to make Maine a place where communities are connected and all people thrive. For Maine to recover from the pandemic, we must invest in our communities and ensure that nobody is left behind.”
Israel Mosely, a member of the Equal Justice Partner Circle, said, “Dr. King, speaking on poverty, once said ‘I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.’”
“Maine held the largest racial disparity for COVID-19 in the nation,” Moseley continue. “26% of Maine’s homeless population are people of color when they represent less than 2% of the population. There is no denying that our systems need serious restructuring. This will take all kinds of people doing all types of work. This is just the beginning of that work. There’s a whole lot more to be done and we can’t settle for half measures or refuse to do our part.”
Adam Goode, legislative and political director with Maine AFL-CIO, said, “Across the state, essential workers have put their health at risk to support the rest of us during the pandemic, often with little to no workplace protections, inadequate benefits, and low wages. These workers have kept the economy and those who can stay home, safe. They also deserve safety: fair working conditions and liveable wages; a strong unemployment insurance system that won’t let them down. Peoples’ health and wellbeing goes beyond the workplace – it’s also affordable health care, safe housing, a clean environment, a functioning and healthy democracy, and much more.”
“Our public policies and state budget must be grounded in equity,” said Ann Woloson, executive director of Consumers for Affordable Health Care. “Everyone in Maine should have access to the health care they need – but too many are going without. Our policies and state budget must ensure that all Mainers have the resources they need to build their futures and raise the next generation healthier and stronger. Preserving the status quo or tinkering around the edges will not meet the demands of this moment.”
Malory Shaughnessy, executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, a statewide association for community behavioral health organizations, said “Deaths of despair have risen during the coronavirus pandemic, and the latest research suggests this increase has been dramatic.We have learned from past experience that any major disruption such as this pandemic will bring a following wave of mental health impacts.”
“Without equitable access to services to meet this growing need,” Shaughnessy continued, “the most vulnerable among us will bear the brunt of these impacts. But if we work to put in place healthy community conditions, good healthcare coverage, and inclusive policies, we can improve mental health and well-being as we come out the other side.”
Supporters of the vision can sign a petition that calls on Maine policymakers to rebuild from the pandemic in a way that advance reforms to ensure that our “new normal” is more equitable.
This piece was originally published at Vision for Equitable Maine. It was co-authored with Richard Hooks Wayman. Richard serves as the President and CEO for Volunteers of America Northern New England, a nonprofit organization offering affordable housing, residential care and community based social services to communities in Maine and New Hampshire.
Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images
The Maine Legislature passed a supplemental budget early Friday morning, with Republicans abandoning their demand to add into the package more than $30 million in tax breaks that would have primarily benefited wealthy corporations.
However, after the GOP effectively jammed the process throughout most of Thursday, some Democrats and outside groups are calling for legislative leadership and the governor to not allow the Republican minority to “hold the entire state hostage” during future budget negotiations and bargain down proposals to help Mainers recover from the pandemic.
The breakthrough on the supplemental budget came after Democrats agreed to amend the short-term spending plan to include a study of the effect of conforming Maine law to federal tax law on Foreign-Derived Intangible Income (FDII), a deduction that domestic companies can take on a specific percentage of export sales. Democrats also agreed to add $8 million to the state’s Rainy Day Fund but held firm against Republicans’ demands to include additional tax breaks for profitable companies in the package.
The agreement caps off a chaotic scramble at the Augusta Civic Center, with Democrats in the Maine House passing the budget Thursday afternoon but lacking the two-thirds support from the body needed for enactment after Republicans withheld their support.
Lawmakers, advocates react to budget passage
The supplemental budget passed Friday morning includes curtailments across state departments put in place by Gov. Janet Mills in response to the financial shortfall caused by the pandemic. It also includes what critics have called a double tax break for all recipients of the Paycheck Protection Program. Advocates have decried those tax breaks as a giveaway to profitable corporations at a time when that money is needed to fund initiatives to help those most in need.
The bill also contains a tax credit for Mainers who received unemployment benefits, targeted relief for direct care service providers and nonprofit providers, money to support early college programs and K-12 education, and funds for affordable housing, among other programs.
“I commend both Democratic and Republican leadership for acting last night to reach a sensible, bipartisan agreement,” Mills said in a statement Friday morning. “As a result of this compromise, 160,000 unemployed Maine people and 28,000 Maine businesses that received PPP funds will receive important tax relief.”
Democratic leadership in the House also celebrated the deal.
“This is a big win for Mainers and a big win for bipartisanship,” said House Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy (D-Old Town).
“This budget centers Maine families,” Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) added. “After an incredibly difficult year, especially for marginalized communities, Mainers can feel secure knowing that their lawmakers in Augusta were able to put politics aside to bring them the relief they need.”
But with the state facing another fight around the biennial budget in the coming months, Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) said there are clear lessons to be learned from the supplemental budget negotiations.
“Democrats need to be clear-eyed about the recent history of House Republicans holding the entire state hostage to shifting demands, typically with a focus on corporate welfare,” Berry said, adding that serious consideration should be given to passing a majority biennial budget to avoid the possibility of a government shutdown. Currently, budgets need to be passed with a two-thirds majority, effectively allowing Republicans in the legislature to hold up the process. Berry said that a shift to a majority budget would need to be made before April 1, explaining that “additional adjustments could then be negotiated on a bipartisan basis following that budget vote.”
“My party’s strength is its belief in shared prosperity and a fair economy for all. If our votes in each committee truly reflect those values and if we keep in mind our majority mandate from Maine voters, we will deliver on the true promise of Maine,” Berry said.
Rep. Mike Sylvester (D-Portland) said he’s hopeful that Democrats’ decision to hold the line against Republicans’ demand for corporate tax breaks puts the party in good position for negotiations on the biennial budget. He said it’s a victory that instead of sending over $30 million to out-of-state corporations in added tax breaks, the supplemental budget puts away $8 million for future state needs. He added that many members of the Democratic caucus joined with the budget bargaining team to offer support and “clearly delineate where the moral lines were to support this budget.”
“Many times, budgets are bargained behind closed doors,” Sylvester said. “The last days of this budget was bargained in the full light of the caucus and that sets us up well for the two year budget.”
Advocacy groups also weighed in on the passage of the supplemental budget and lessons from the process.
“We appreciate the majority of the Maine Legislature holding firm to pass a supplemental budget without adding any more wasteful giveaways to profitable corporations,” Garrett Martin, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, said in a statement.
However, looking forward, Martin urged lawmakers to go big to ensure a robust recovery for Mainers.
“As the Legislature turns its attention to the next biennial budget, MECEP calls on legislators to prioritize bold action to create a shared economic recovery for all Mainers, and to address longstanding unmet needs that will give all families the opportunity to prosper and thrive,” he said.
Long day at the Civic Center
The deal brings an end to a lengthy supplemental budget process at the Augusta Civic Center. After the Maine Senate passed an amended version of the supplemental budget Wednesday night, Republicans in the House dug in throughout most of Thursday, refusing to vote for the plan unless additional tax cuts for large corporations were added.
The House voted 83-63 in favor of the package Thursday afternoon, with Republicans at that point withholding the votes needed for the measure to obtain a two-thirds margin. The bill was then tabled.
In a statement after the Thursday afternoon vote, Mills criticized Republicans for opposing the measure, calling the failure to pass the budget “a loss for Maine.” Mills added that the budget before the House already represented a compromise between Democrats and Republicans.
“House Republicans should reconsider their opposition, abandon their last minute attempt to provide state tax breaks to large multi-state, multi-national corporations, and join us in achieving meaningful compromise on behalf of Maine people and Maine businesses,” Mills said.
House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) similarly said Republicans who opposed the deal had voted against Maine businesses and workers.
“Today’s vote is a message we are sending to over 28,000 businesses, the 250,000 Mainers they employ and over 160,000 Mainers who were out of work in 2020,” Fecteau said. “This was a vote on whether we stand with them. Republicans didn’t stand with them.”
On Thursday morning, House Republicans had attempted to amend the package to include additional corporate tax cuts, but Democrats rejected those changes and passed the amendments included in the Senate version of the bill, which was approved Wednesday night with a two-thirds majority and gained support from two Republicans.
Before the House vote on the measure Thursday afternoon, multiple Democratic lawmakers pleaded with House Republicans to support the budget.
“This motion does right by Maine businesses, Maine workers and all those families that have struggled because of this pandemic, and I respectfully urge this body to vote yes,” said Rep. Mo Terry (D-Gorham).
Rep. Jessica Fay (D-Raymond) added that the tax credit provided for those receiving unemployment benefits would provide necessary assistance to those who lost their jobs during the crisis.
“Without this measure, people who received unemployment benefits will be on the hook for state income taxes,” Fay said. “At a time when so many Mainers are struggling to get by, we can lessen the tax burden on those most affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic by passing this supplemental budget.”
Rep. Michele Meyer (D-Eliot) also spoke in favor of the budget, pointing to the targeted relief included for direct care providers and nonprofit providers as an important aspect of the bill and noting that those organizations have largely been left out of aid programs passed during the pandemic.
“That we may fail them is unconscionable,” Meyer said.
Photo: The Maine House chamber | Maine State Legislature
Working Mainers hit hard by the pandemic spoke at a public legislative hearing Tuesday about the need to pass two revenue bills that would help those who have struggled most during the COVID-19 crisis by ensuring that the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes.
The hearing comes as tens of thousands of people are still unemployed in Maine while billionaire wealth across the country grew by 27% during the first five months of the pandemic. And, as referenced by multiple speakers at a hearing before the Taxation Committee, the measures would help balance Maine’s tax code, which asks the poorest in the state to pay more than the wealthiest. Fixing that issue by instituting a tax increase on the rich is both popular with Mainers and — according to a report released late last year — would help jumpstart the state’s economy.
One of the bills discussed Tuesday, LD 501, would amend corporate income taxes in Maine — which were cut in 2018 under former Gov. Paul LePage — by increasing the top rate from 8.93% to 12.4%. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Heidi Brooks (D-Lewiston), would only apply that higher tax to money corporations make in excess of $3.5 million.
In testimony before the Taxation Committee, Brooks said the need for fair tax policy has become increasingly evident during the pandemic.
“Many multibillion dollar corporations are profiting while their employees aren’t even making a liveable wage,” Brooks said. “Increasing the amount of the top corporate tax rate would help Maine’s economy.”
The Taxation Committee also heard testimony Tuesday on LD 498, a measure that would reauthorize a 3% surcharge on income over $200,000 to help lift Maine workers out of poverty. As noted by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Sylvester (D-Portland), that same surcharge was approved by Maine voters in 2016 as part of a ballot referendum to raise revenue to fund education. The measure was subsequently repealed in a budget bill signed by LePage, who also pushed through tax cuts that have largely benefited the wealthy.
“LD 498 asks those who make the most to give a little to help our economy recover,” Sylvester said Tuesday.
Sylvester said he envisions the money raised by the surcharge going toward fully funding Maine’s Earned Income Tax Credit to match the benefit provided by the federal program. The EITC program provides tax relief for low to moderate income people who qualify. In 2018, the credit lifted over five million people out of poverty, including three million children, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In addition to helping people survive during a crisis, putting money into the pockets of low-income Mainers would help stimulate the economy, Sylvester argued.
Rep. Joe Perry (D-Bangor), a member of the Taxation Committee, said he has seen that play out in his experience as a small business owner.
“Business has never been so good as when the stimulus checks went out and the average person had money in their pocket,” Perry said, adding that he hasn’t seen a similar uptick when tax cuts for the wealthy have been passed.
‘It starts with you’
The Taxation Committee heard Tuesday from a wide range of people in support of the measures, including Auburn resident Gina Morin, who spoke in favor of the bill to raise the corporate income tax rate.
Morin, a volunteer for Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project), explained that the pandemic has made life even more difficult for low-income Mainers. However, she said even before COVID-19 struck, the lack of investment in a robust social safety net left many people in the state behind. For example, Morin spoke about her struggle to get by on just $19 a month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
That difficulty, and the massive amount of hardship people have gone through during the pandemic, stands in stark contrast to the experience of big businesses during the crisis, Morin said.
“Poor Mainers aren’t living,” she said. “We’re barely surviving. But large corporations like Amazon and Walmart are doing better than ever.”
Morin pointed out that it doesn’t have to be that way. She said a Maine where everyone has what they need to thrive, where schools have sufficient funding, and where hunger is a thing of the past is possible if lawmakers decide to generate revenue to help those most in need.
“It starts with you,” Morin told the Taxation Committee.
Another Mainer who testified was Katrina Ray-Saulis, who spoke in favor of Sylvester’s tax fairness bill.
Ray-Saulis, who is a contributor to Beacon, said she has long worked multiple jobs and taken a litany of gig work out of necessity.
“I don’t turn down work because I can’t afford to,” she said. “I know firsthand how hard work does not always equate with how much money you earn. It’s beyond frustrating that our tax code as it’s currently written prioritizes wealth and the wealthy over investments that would build a stronger, more fair economy for Mainers.”
Through passing Sylvester’s tax fairness bill, Ray-Saulis said lawmakers can help to rectify that problem.
“By putting a surcharge on any income over $200,000, LD 498 ensures that Maine’s wealthiest citizens will pay their share,” she said.
Bills draw additional support from advocates, opposition from business groups
A number of advocates also testified in favor of the bills. One was Adam Goode, legislative and political director for Maine AFL-CIO, who said the need for the bills is clear, arguing that public investments are required to help the multitude of Mainers who are just barely getting by.
“Working people, whether Black, brown or white, deserve policies that close the staggering wealth and inequality gap,” Goode said. “We fell short on this goal before COVID-19, and the pandemic and the events of the last year have only made things worse.”
However, not everyone who testified Tuesday supported the bills, with a number of people from business and trade groups speaking against the measures. Some of the organizations in opposition to one or both of the bills included Spectrum Healthcare Partners, the Maine Jobs Council, the Maine Retail Association, NFIB/Maine, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, HospitalityMaine, the Maine Hospital Association and the Manufacturers Association of Maine.
The groups argued that the policies would have a crippling effect on businesses, negatively impact the state’s ability to attract new sources of commerce, lead to businesses fleeing the state and disincentivize people in high-earning professions such as the medical field from moving to Maine.
Ann Robinson, a lawyer with Pierce Atwood, spoke at the hearing on behalf of Spectrum Healthcare Partners in opposition to both bills.
“LD 498 alone would have substantial consequences for Spectrum’s health care practice. Together with 501, the financial consequences are all the more dire,” she said.
Ben Lucas, executive director of the Maine Jobs Council, also opposed both bills.
“LDs 498 and 501 would increase costs on employees, employers and job creators,” Lucas told the committee.
However, John Kosinski, director of government relations for the Maine Education Association, pushed back against those assertions in his testimony, saying the arguments made Tuesday were largely the same as those made in opposition to the 2016 referendum approved by voters but ultimately repealed by LePage.
During that campaign, Kosinski said business groups and other opponents made anecdotal claims that the tax increase would lead to wealthy residents and businesses fleeing the state and make it harder to attract people in certain professions to Maine. But he said the organizations have failed to make a compelling case for that argument.
“There’s no empirical evidence to show that these tax rates are going to make it harder for us to recruit doctors or businesses into our state,” Kosinski said. “In fact, I would argue it’s our quality of life that drives Maine to be a competitive place, and our quality of life relies on great schools and doing something about income inequality that we’re all facing.”
Top photo: A sign from the State House tax fairness rally on June 6, 2019 | Dan Neumann, Beacon
Maine lawmakers have introduced a slate of bills designed to help people find and keep affordable housing and access support if they are unhoused.
On Wednesday, the Housing and Labor Committee heard testimony on the first bill in the slate, which would require the establishment of a rental assistance and housing voucher guarantee program within the Maine State Housing Authority.
Introduced by state Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland), LD 473 has three components. The first, Morales said, is to create a rental assistance program within the Maine State Housing Authority that is less restrictive and easier to administer than federal voucher programs. The second is a rental voucher guarantee, which would expand Maine Housing’s existing landlord incentive programs and create a letter of guarantee for those who rent to people receiving general assistance or aid from other subsidy programs of up to $2,000. The third component is to provide “housing navigators” who can help tenants locate and keep housing.
Morales, who also serves as the executive director of the Quality Housing Coalition, said the bill is based off a program run by Project HOME that has been successful in keeping nearly 100 percent of participants housed who would otherwise struggle to access shelter.
Morales noted that housing security is a particularly important issue amid a pandemic that has created additional economic difficulties for many people. However, she said the housing crisis existed long before COVID-19 struck, telling her fellow lawmakers that now is the time for action.
“We have a duty,” Morales said. “In fact, I argue it’s the only duty we have as legislators. Which is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people of Maine. Housing is fundamentally important to the health and success of our people, whether that be in their education, health care and treatment, or employment success.”
The need for action is compounded, Morales said, by the fact that Maine Housing has reported that 25,000 people in the state are waiting for federal Section 8 housing vouchers.
Morales’ bill is one of a number of housing measures being considered this session. Others include an act to create an eviction mediation program, legislation to require background check companies and landlords to use eviction data with care, a bill to prevent landlords from refusing to accept a tenant simply because they receive rental assistance, a measure to direct funds to creating and strengthening regional homeless shelters, a bill to direct money toward building housing for people who are homeless, an act to reform the General Assistance Program to improve housing security, a measure to create a bond for green affordable housing, and legislation to establish a minimum fair housing goal for each community.
The measures are supported by Housing Justice Maine, a coalition that includes the Maine Immigrant Housing Coalition, Maine People’s Housing Coalition, Maine Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, the Southern Maine Workers Center and Maine Equal Justice.
In a news release about the slate of housing legislation, Brendan Akers of Lewiston — who has experienced homelessness in the past — said it’s clear affordable housing programs are desperately needed in Maine.
“The Section 8 program helped my family get stable housing,” Akers said. “But I was able to get to the front of the waiting line because I’m a veteran. Meanwhile, my mom was on the waiting list for years. Lots of people need help, and we know they’re eligible for help, so why wouldn’t we fully fund a program that we know people need?”
‘I need rental assistance now’
A number of people testified in support of LD 473 on Wednesday. One was Mike Stuckmyer of Portland, who said in submitted testimony that he experienced homelessness in 2018 for four months. He was eventually able to find housing but has not received assistance in paying his rent. Stuckmyer said his building was just sold and that he has fallen behind on rent and is being threatened with eviction.
“If I had a voucher, I wouldn’t have to live in fear of being evicted or being homeless again,” he said. “I have been on the Section 8 waitlist for three years, and I know many people who have been on the list far longer. I can’t wait another three years, or even another three months. I need rental assistance now in order to keep my housing.”
“No one should have to experience the horrors of homelessness or live in fear of eviction,” Stuckmyer added.
In her testimony, Robyn Stanicki, president of Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition, shared that she experienced homelessness as a teenager. Stanicki said LD 473 would provide much-needed aid to those who are struggling with access to shelter in Maine.
“This legislation boosts assistance and adds valuable navigation services,” she said.
Cate Blackford, interim legislative director for Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) also spoke in favor of the legislation. Blackford noted that addressing gaps in the state’s housing system is both an economic and a racial justice issue. She pointed out that while 76% of white households in Maine own a home, only half of households of color in Maine do. And for Black Mainers, that number is just 25% — a disparity Blackford said is the result of “centuries of laws designed to advantage white people” when it comes to housing.
Blackford said LD 473 would be a step toward addressing racial and economic gaps in housing access — something that is critical to ensuring that all Mainers are able to thrive.
“One of the most basic things we all need is a safe, decent and affordable place to call home,” she said.
Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, also testified in support of LD 473. In particular, she praised the inclusion of housing navigators in the bill.
“Housing navigation is a proven tool that helps those experiencing homeless to get housing,” Chitam said, pointing to her own experience working as a navigator to help find housing for asylum-seekers.
Maine Equal Justice Policy Director Frank D’Alessandro also spoke in favor of Morales’ bill and the broader slate of housing measures.
“Maine’s rental housing market is among the least affordable in the nation, and our state has not done enough to protect people who are being priced out of their homes,” D’Alessandro said in a news release. “We need to come together to pass common-sense improvements in Maine’s housing laws, to protect renters and provide more support for Mainers seeking affordable homes. Maine has an opportunity this year to leverage federal and state dollars to make a big impact and lay the groundwork for long-term solutions.”
Top Photo: Ashley-Brown via Flickr
The Maine State Republican Party is moving to censure the last Republican member of Congress in New England and Ben is breaking out the popcorn on this week’s episode of the Beacon Podcast.
Plus: Some cool people are running for Charter Commission in Portland.
Ask a question or leave a comment for a future show at (207) 619-3182.
Photo: White House official photo
To Jackie Fournier and other nurses at Maine Medical Center, there are many reasons why forming a union would be beneficial.
But chief among them is the ability to better care for those they serve.
“This is for our patients and for our community,” said Fournier in an interview with Beacon about the ongoing organizing effort among the nursing staff at the state’s largest hospital.
That push officially kicked off in January when Maine Medical Center nurses petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to join the Maine State Nurses Association, an affiliate of National Nurses United. As a result, an election will take place at the end of March to determine whether nurses will join the union.
‘The heart and foundation of the hospital’
Fournier, who has been a registered nurse at Maine Medical Center for over 20 years and works in the mothers and babies unit, said the driving force behind the unionization campaign is nurses’ desire to have a greater voice in decisions by the hospital’s administration that impact patient care.
“We, as nurses, are the heart and the foundation of the hospital — most people would argue nurses are what makes the hospital run along with great help from many other people,” Fournier said. “So we are on the front lines day in and day out, and we feel very strongly about organizing so that we can have a real and collective voice.”
Specifically, Fournier said one concern nurses have is the calculations Maine Medical Center uses to determine how many nurses are needed at one time. Fournier said the problem is that those figures often don’t reflect the unpredictable nature of patient care.
“The [nurses] who are here day in and day out have a much better understanding of what is needed to run things safely and efficiently and to be able to provide the best patient care,” she said. “So our ability to advocate for our patients will be greatly strengthened by having a collective voice as a union.”
As Beacon previously reported, nurses are also organizing to negotiate with the hospital about wage increases, an expanded bank of time off and about ending policies that contribute to burnout, such as forced overtime and rotating shifts. Nurses have also asked the hospital to improve COVID-19 safety precautions.
But while Fournier said the pandemic has certainly changed working conditions at the hospital, she explained that nurses had concerns about the way the Maine Medical Center was being run well before COVID-19. In fact, Fournier said the current unionization drive began in the fall of 2019.
However, she said the pandemic has demonstrated that hospitals where nurses are unionized have had much better support during the crisis, which has placed even more responsibility on nurses’ shoulders. Fournier pointed specifically to the work that has been done during the pandemic by National Nurses United to support members of that union.
“It’s been really great to see the union that we chose stepping up to represent those nurses that are already unionized under them, and I feel like it has fueled the strength of our campaign,” she said.
Fournier added that the support provided by National Nurses United and the Maine State Nurses Association to members during the pandemic stands in contrast to the attempt by Maine Medical Center management to paint a potential union as an outside organization that would only interfere with collaboration at the hospital. That narrative was deployed in a recent video featuring Maine Medical Center President Jeff Sanders, who told nurses, “I strongly believe we have a much brighter future working together without a union in between.”
Fournier pushed back against that notion, explaining that if the campaign is successful, a survey would be sent to Maine Medical Center nurses asking them what the union should prioritize in discussions with hospital management.
“So even though it’s been pitched as the union being an outsider, third-party organization, it’s really important to note that we are the union,” Fournier said. “The registered nurses at Maine Med are the union — it’s not an outside firm.”
Nurses disappointed by anti-union campaign
Along with Sanders’ video urging nurses not to unionize, Maine Medical Center has hired the firm Reliant Labor Consultants, which describes itself as specializing in helping clients “avoid the many significant problems that arise when work groups are organized.”
In addition, the firm’s president touts on his LinkedIn page a “demonstrated history of working in [the] union avoidance industry” and was brought on by another anti-union firm to help fend off a union drive in 2014 at Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas.
As reported by WMTW, nurses at Maine Medical Center have been required to attend sessions run by the anti-union firm. Fournier, who has attended a session, said nurses are disappointed that they’ve been required to attend the meetings, which were billed by management as an opportunity to provide the nurses with neutral information about unions.
“It was quite clear in many cases that these were not neutral meetings at all, and this was a private company that was being hired to provide information that would sway us or dissuade us from voting for a union,” Fournier said.
She added that nurses are also upset because some were pulled away from their patients for the anti-union sessions.
For Fournier and other nurses, the hiring of Reliant represents an example of misplaced priorities by the hospital and another reason why a union is needed.
“Most of the nurses came out of those meetings feeling like the enormous amount of money MaineHealth spent on union-busting really should be spent on patient care and improving conditions at the hospital,” she said. “So that really did actually turn a lot of nurses toward the idea of unionizing who were previously on the fence.”
Fournier added that nurses were also extremely disappointed that, as reported by the Portland Press Herald, MaineHealth had vaccinated those brought in from out of state to push back against the union — a clear violation of Maine CDC’s COVID-19 vaccination rules.
“The nursing staff is very displeased about that,” Fournier said. “It’s unfortunate that they’ve chosen to vaccinate out of state union-busting consultants prior to even completing vaccinations for front-line workers.”
Gov. Janet Mills also criticized MaineHealth, releasing a statement Tuesday saying the organization’s decision “undermines the public’s confidence in our efforts. Simply put, it was not the appropriate way to give away our precious vaccine.” In that statement, Mills, who had previously declined to give an opinion on the nurses’ unionization effort, added that “vaccinating out-of-state contractors who came here to disrupt a union organizing effort was an insult to the hardworking nurses trying to assert their rights.”
While the effort by Maine Medical Center management to push back against the union drive has been disappointing, Fournier said the support the nurses are receiving from the general public has helped fortify them in their push for representation. For example, a Facebook page called Friends of Maine Med Nurses, which has 2,500 members, has featured myriad messages of support and solidarity. In addition, Fournier said nurses have received a litany of encouragement from other unions members in Maine.
That support has been extremely important, said Fournier, noting that the messages have had a positive effect on some who previously weren’t sure whether a union would be beneficial.
“It’s been great to see the community coming out for us and supporting us like that,” she said.
Top photo via Maine Medical Center Facebook page
When Thom Harnett was just out of law school, he interviewed for a job with an organization that provided legal services to farmworkers in the Hudson Valley, visiting a migrant labor camp not far from New York City.
“This was 1980, and on farms that were less than 60 miles from Manhattan … there were people without running water where they were living, that were still using outhouses, workers still then were not provided with sanitary facilities when they were in the field or were not guaranteed fresh drinking water,” Harnett said.
That experience stuck with Harnett. “It changed the way I looked at everything,” he said.
Harnett worked as an attorney for farmworkers in New York state for nine years. And while he said progress was made protecting the rights of farmworkers, “We never won the war.”
Now a state representative in Maine, Harnett (D-Gardiner) is continuing that fight, putting forward three bills this legislative session to improve labor standards for farmworkers.
One bill would “make agricultural employees and other workers” subject to state wage and hour laws, allowing them to be covered by minimum wage and overtime statutes. Another would allow farmworkers in Maine to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining without fear of retaliation — exempting farms under a certain size and with a limited number of employees. The third would require that employers have a plan in place to protect outdoor workers — including farmworkers — during extreme weather events.
The bills would address long-standing exemptions that left farmworkers out of labor laws passed in the 1930s, Harnett said. He pointed out that the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, both passed as part of the New Deal, excluded farmworkers as well as domestic workers — groups that are largely comprised of people of color.
That was no accident, said Bruce Goldstein, president of the national group Farmworker Justice.
“The exclusion of farmworkers from labor protections is rooted in the racism of the 1930s,” Goldstein said. “There was opposition from southern states where there were a lot of African Americans working in agriculture, and a lot of southern Democrats did not want to give those rights to these workers.”
While farmworkers were made subject to the national minimum wage in the 1960s, they are not guaranteed Maine’s higher state minimum wage and don’t receive overtime pay, Harnett said. And aside from a period of time from 1997 to 2012 when DeCoster Egg Farm workers in Maine could unionize, agricultural employees in the state haven’t had the right to collectively bargain without retaliation.
Those exclusions are what Harnett hopes to change with his bills.
“To me, these are just the most fundamental, basic labor law protections,” Harnett said. “How much do you make and can you form a union?”
Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, agreed.
“We strongly believe all workers should have the right to organize and all the workers should have the basic protection of labor law and workforce protections that exist in this country,” he said.
Schlobohm added that given the history behind why farmworkers and domestic workers were excluded from labor laws in the 1930s, it’s particularly crucial that such issues are brought to the forefront in this year’s legislative session.
“In this moment where we are unpacking and grappling again with the history of white supremacy in the United States and in Maine, it’s really important that these bills are introduced and debated,” Schlobohm said.
‘It’s the right thing to do’
The bills to make farmworkers subject to state wage and hour laws and to allow them to organize for collective bargaining are both measures Harnett previously introduced in the 129th Legislature. Those bills failed, Harnett said, receiving unanimous “ought not to pass” designations from the Labor and Housing Committee.
That was a disappointing result, he said, adding that the conversation around the bills was frustrating. For example, Harnett said when he talked about his time in other states as a lawyer fighting for better working conditions for farmworkers, some dismissed that experience, saying Maine was different than those places.
“I don’t want to make light of that because we do have a lot of good and nice and decent people, as does every state in the country and every country in the world,” Harnett said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re immune from the same negative excesses and negative characters involved in the industry. That’s why you have laws — to regulate those fundamental rights.”
Harnett added that there was a behind-the-scenes push against the bills last session from opponents of the measures. In particular, he noted that no one actually testified against the bill that would have let farmworkers organize. Nevertheless, the measure failed to advance out of committee.
Some of the opposition was more overt, said Harnett, who has argued that the exemptions from labor protections of workers employed in industries historically dominated by people of color is a vestige of slavery. In response to that argument, one Maine farm owner in 2019 claimed during a public hearing on the wage and hour bill Harnett introduced that there were “plenty of slave owners that were good to their people.”
This time around, if the bills get out of committee, Harnett said he hopes the measures would be approved by the full legislature. However, he said he’ll continue to bring the measures forward even if they fail again.
“It’s the right thing to do, and I will continue to push for the right thing to do, even if they keep telling me no,” he said.
Harnett added that the pandemic has driven home the point that farmworkers need to be protected under labor laws. As Beacon previously reported, advocates were concerned over the summer about how COVID-19 would impact the state’s migrant farmworkers, who travel from as far away as Jamaica and Mexico to harvest crops in Maine.
Harnett said it’s ironic that even though farmworkers have been deemed essential workers by the state during the pandemic, they still don’t have access to basic labor protections under Maine law.
“That, to me, is unacceptable,” he said.
Goldstein, from Farmworker Justice, said the situation is similar for many agricultural workers across the country. And he added that because many farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, they are sometimes afraid to report a positive COVID-19 test because they’re afraid of being fired and becoming more vulnerable to deportation. That culture of fear and lack of protection needs to change, he said.
“Now that we’ve designated farmworkers as essential workers to our food supply and our agricultural system and we expect them to work, the least we could do is give them the same labor protections that other workers have and provide them with an avenue to get status if they’re undocumented,” Goldstein said.
Maine is far from the only state where farmworkers are treated differently under labor law than other workers. But some states — such as California — have bucked that trend, Goldstein said. In California, farmworkers have had the ability to unionize since the 1970s, and agricultural workers won the right to overtime pay in 2016.
The fact that California leads the way in farmworker labor standards is a big deal, Goldstein explained.
“California is the most important agricultural state in terms of the produce that it grows each year,” he said. “And it’s able to treat farmworkers like other workers and so should every other state.”
Mike Guare, a staff attorney in the Farmworker Unit at Pine Tree Legal Assistance, also noted that New York state has instituted changes when it comes to farmworkers, including allowing overtime pay and the right for such workers to form a union.
Guare said if Harnett’s bills are passed, Maine would be on the forefront of states that treat farmworkers similar to other workers under labor law.
“Maine would not be leading the way, but we would certainly be one of the first,” he said.
Still, Harnett said even if his bills are approved, Maine’s laws wouldn’t reach the level of protection provided to farmworkers in California.
“I would say not even close,” he said. “[These bills] would address certain issues.”
Top photo: Farmworker Justice via Facebook
In response to news that Maine Medical Center’s nursing staff are preparing to unionize, president Jeff Sanders recorded a video this week directed at the hospital’s 1,600 nurses.
In the nearly four-minute video, he describes what he sees as a collaborative work environment at Maine’s largest hospital, a deep commitment among management and staff to the organization’s core values, and pride at not having cut jobs or pay during the pandemic. He closes with an ask:
“I ask you to cast a vote to maintain Maine Medical Center as a union-free medical center,” Sanders says in the video message posted on Feb. 3. “I invite all of our nursing colleagues to take the time to educate themselves on what it would mean to be part of a union, and what it would mean to be union free. […] I strongly believe we have a much brighter future working together without a union in between.”
Sanders’ message is part of a campaign orchestrated by a hired consultant that specializes in countering efforts by workers to unionize.
Carefully crafted anti-union messages have ramped up in recent weeks after MMC nurses petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Jan. 12 to join the Maine State Nurses Association, an affiliate of National Nurses United, the largest nurses’ union in the U.S.. A secret ballot election will take place in the next few months to determine if the nurses will join the union.
The nurses are asking the state’s largest private employer, MaineHealth, to improve COVID safety precautions, give them more of a voice in patient care, as well as agree to annual wage increases, an expanded bank of paid time off, and ending policies that contribute to burnout like forced overtime and rotating shifts.
While organizers have not officially commented on the process so far, other unions have rallied to their cause. “The nurses are facing an aggressive union-busting effort by Maine Med management,” Maine Service Employee Association-SIEU president Dean Staffieri wrote in an email to MSEA members, asking them to sign a petition of support. “The nurses are advocating for all of us. They’re on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This moment in the unionization process is critical for securing widespread support.
According to an advertisement by the firm hired by MMC, Reliant Labor Consultants, “You have but a few short weeks to expose the union and counter their effective sales pitch.”
Under the letter of the law, employers cannot bust unions. That means they cannot threaten to shut down a plant, fire workers, coercively interrogate workers, or spy on workers attempting to unionize.
However, there is a whole industry of consultants that help corporations navigate these legalities.
Reliant president helped Trump casino bust unions
Reliant specializes in “helping its clients sustain their direct relationships with their employees and avoid the many significant problems that arise when work groups are organized,” according to the firm’s website.
The firm’s president, Joseph Brock, is a former Teamster president who touts on his LinkedIn page a “demonstrated history of working in [the] union avoidance industry.”
That history includes working for another anti-union firm, LRI Consulting Services, Inc., who brought Brock on to help fend off a union drive in 2014 at Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas.
In 2019, Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan paid Reliant and Kulture Consulting — another firm with ties to former President Donald Trump’s casinos — $1.8 million to counter a group of nurses trying to rally their coworkers to form a union.
Over the course of their two-year union drive, which is still ongoing, Beaumont nurses filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the NLRB, accusing management of attempting to “restrain and coerce nurses from exercising their rights.”
The nurses’ complaints against the hospital included interrogating staff about their social media posts, isolating a pro-union employee from colleagues by changing her job duties, and threatening to take away favorable working conditions if the workers chose to organize.
The nurses also complained that they were forced to attend mandatory “education” sessions about unions led by Reliant and Kulture Consulting.
Reliant now seems to be using some of those same tactics at Maine Medical Center. A memo obtained by WMTW showed that nurses have been required to attend trainings during their shifts. Clay Holtzman, a hospital spokesperson, did not say how many sessions nurses have been required to attend with Reliant consultants.
One hospital worker expressed concern in a social media post about consultants flying in from out of state to meet with nurses while not following Maine’s quarantine orders.
“MMC follows the same protocols for testing, PPE and social distancing as we do other contractual individuals who work in our hospital,” Holtzman said when asked about the hospital’s quarantine protocols for Reliant consultants.
Captive audience meetings
“Captive audience meetings,” when managers gather employees in small groups to try to educate them about unions, is a well-worn tactic used by corporations trying to dissuade their employees from organizing. Their use has created a market for firms that specialize in delivering tested anti-union talking points and strategies.
“Union busting has become big business in America. It’s so common that the run-of-the-mill variety hardly raises an eyebrow,” labor reporter Michelle Chen wrote in In These Times in 2019. “Employers regularly hire anti-union consultants and hold captive audience meetings laced with subtle and not-so-subtle threats of disciplinary action or firings.”
A 2019 study by the progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute found that employers may be becoming more brazen in union busting. Employers were charged with violating federal law in 41.5 percent of all union election campaigns in the U.S. in 2016 and 2017. That’s a higher rate than recorded during the 2000s.
The Portland Phoenix reported on Wednesday that approximately a dozen workers at the Portland Museum of Art were laid off amid an ongoing union drive there. Management asserts that it was for unrelated reasons.
Many charges made by workers do not lead to companies being punished. This is because NLRB, the government agency responsible for protecting workers from retaliation if they decide to unionize, has limited leverage against employers that engage in union-busting. The board cannot force companies to pay damages, beyond back wages.
The ideological background of NLRB members is also a factor. Trump appointed pro-management nominees to the board, who were confirmed by Sen. Susan Collins and other Senate Republicans.
‘Tricks, costs, rules’
Since news broke that MMC had secured Reliant to counter the nurses’ drive, the hospital has begun putting out messaging common in anti-union campaigns.
The hospital has produced videos and recently launched an informational website, GetthefactsMMC.org, which features FAQs and other resources that attempt to subtly persuade nurses that unions are bureaucratic, unaccountable, third-party entities standing between workers and supervisors.
“The realities, tricks, costs, rules, legal ramifications and lifelong commitments that are the result of union membership,” as Reliant’s website describes it.
Some nurses complained that video messages were texted this week to their personal phone numbers. One video, posted on Friday, focused on the Maine State Nurses Association’s affiliation with National Nurses United, headquartered in Oakland, California. “Do you believe this California-based union can truly represent your best interests?” the video asks.
The website gives detailed breakdowns of the potential cost of union dues and claims that the material benefits of organizing — higher pay, better benefits, job security and safety protections — are not certain, and may not be immediately felt.
A quiz on the website asks nurses true or false questions. One reads: “There are no guarantees with contract negotiations. You could get more, get less or things could stay exactly as they are?”
“True,” the answer reads. “While unions might make promises about what they can do, the reality is they cannot guarantee anything. The outcome of negotiations is impossible to predict, despite the sales pitch the union might use to get your support.”
While it is true there is some unpredictability in organizing, national labor data shows quantifiable benefits to the power of collective bargaining. Unionized workers earn 11.2 percent more in wages than their non-unionized peers, on average. Black union workers are paid 13.7 percent more.
Displays of solidarity
This is not the first time nurses have tried to start a union at Maine Medical Center. In 1976, nurses failed to get enough votes to unionize. The election followed years of workplace organizing, during which workers were also subjected to “education” sessions. Organizers filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the hospital, claiming supervisors actively campaigned against the union.
There is hope that this time the outcome may be different. Weeks after nurses petitioned to join the Maine State Nurses Association, displays of solidarity have grown online. Across the state, nurses and other workers have added a banner to their Facebook profiles reading, “United we bargain, divided we beg. MMC RNs, Vote Yes.” A Facebook page, “Friends of Maine Med Nurses,” has 2,200 members. Bath Iron Works’ largest union, Local S6, is supporting the nurses. Other supporters have sent messages to the hospital, urging management to remain neutral during the union drive.
Gov. Janet Mills, whose sister is Dr. Dora Anne Mills, MaineHealth’s chief health improvement officer, declined to say if she supported the nurses’ campaign.
“I’m not at all involved in the union organizing drive by the nurses at Maine Health and I wouldn’t dare offer an opinion because I really don’t know enough about it and I don’t think it’s my place to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do,” Mills said in response to a question from Beacon.
Labor organizers with the Maine State Nurses Association have declined to comment while MMC nurses are in the heat of preparing for a union authorization election. But, in a social media post on Jan. 26, the nurses union shared their thoughts on the hospital hiring Reliant.
“What’s Disgusting? UNION BUSTING!”
Top Photo: Maine Medical Center in Portland.
Maine activists on Thursday delivered more than 6,000 “past due” invoices to Sen. Susan Collins’ Lewiston office, urging the Maine Republican to support monthly direct cash payments as millions of people around the country continue to struggle with the effects of the pandemic.
The invoices delivered to Collins include the names of over two million people who signed a petition from Change.org that asked Congress to pass legislation to provide $2,000 stimulus checks on a monthly basis for the duration of the pandemic.
“As the Biden administration takes office, the country is deeply struggling,” the petition reads. “We’re out of work and out of cash. It took nine months for Congress to send a second stimulus check, and just moments to spend it. Another single check won’t solve our problems — people are just too far behind.”
Lewiston resident Gina Morin, a volunteer with the Maine People’s Alliance who helped deliver the invoices to Collins’ office, agreed. (Beacon is a project of Maine People’s Alliance).
“Direct cash is the most effective way to address this crisis,” Morin said. “So many people in Maine have lost their jobs or lost work or lost their homes over the past year. I know what it’s like to have been forced onto the street, and I’ve been working with other volunteers to help folks here in Lewiston but there’s only so much we can do. Unemployment is running out and food banks are stretched to the limit. It’s time for Congress to pass direct cash relief.”http://mainebeacon.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/videe-collins.mp4
Providing substantial checks as part of the next COVID-19 relief package is popular with voters, recent polling from Data for Progress and The Lab shows. In that poll, 81 percent of voters indicated support for Congress authorizing a $2,000 stimulus check, including 74 percent of Republicans, and 60 percent of people said they favored monthly $2,000 payments, including 57 percent of independent voters.
Despite that broad-based support, a stimulus plan put forward by Collins and nine other Republicans this week proposed reducing a one-time direct payment from $1,400 — which President Joe Biden pitched in his COVID-19 relief plan — to a maximum amount of $1,000. The GOP senators’ plan would also decrease the number of people who receive stimulus checks and would eliminate Biden’s proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Biden met with Collins and other Republican senators Monday to discuss that plan, but no agreement was reached. And on Tuesday, Democrats in the House and Senate passed a budget resolution that set in motion a legislative tool called reconciliation that would allow them to pass at least portions of Biden’s stimulus package through majority vote.
Maine’s other senator, Angus King — an independent who caucuses with the Democrats — voted with Senate Democrats in favor of the resolution, which passed along party lines. That vote came after Maine groups had expressed concern that King was part of a group of Republicans and conservative Democrats who advocated in late January for the Biden administration to reduce spending in its COVID-19 relief package.
On the House side, while Rep. Chellie Pingree supported the effort to move forward with reconciliation, Rep. Jared Golden was one of just two House Democrats who opposed the measure.
“Biden won the presidency; I won my reelection. That being said … the House Democratic majority got more narrow, not larger. They barely won the Senate; it’s a 50-50 split,” Golden said. “This is not a mandate for one-party rule.”
However, as shown by the Data for Progress poll on stimulus checks and a poll showing widespread support for Biden’s relief proposal, most Americans favor a larger stimulus package than Republicans in Congress have indicated support for.
At a news conference Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, also weighed in on the ongoing pandemic relief negotiations, saying there are “a lot of needs out there.”
“I don’t have a specific position about what should be in either the Biden plan or the bipartisan plan or the Republican plan, far be it from me to delve into that at this point,” Mills said. “I know there are a lot of needs out there and … obviously a need is to help the people who are unemployed, food and housing are needs that people are desperate for, and relief money for education to help make sure schools can open and open safely is a big need.”
Activists outside Susan Collins’ office Thursday | Photo and video by Rafael Macias
Residents of Portland are being given an opportunity to share their vision for how the city government could function and what to prioritize after a tense few years that highlighted a fissure between the will of the city’s voters and those in power.
In June, voters will elect members to a committee that will examine and revise the Portland city charter. In advance of that vote, the volunteer-led group People First Portland has launched an online forum that lays out 22 priorities to foster stronger democracy in Maine’s largest city and that allows residents to weigh in on what the city’s charter should look like.
The “People First Charter Forum” includes a number of proposed reforms, such as eliminating the city manager position and replacing it with a more empowered mayor and city council, as well as other ideas submitted by People First Portland and members of the public.
Kate Sykes, a volunteer with People First Portland — which won four out of five ballot measures it put forward in the November election — said revising the city charter is essential to reforming democracy in Portland.
In the early 1900s, Sykes said Portland had a government that was much more responsive to its people, with a strong socialist movement in the city. However, over the years, the city’s system of governance has moved in a more conservative direction.
Sykes said some progress was made in undoing that in 2010, when the city’s charter was opened and an elected mayor position was added. However, more reform is needed, she said, as the mayor has limited power and essentially functions as an at-large city councilor.
The real control, Sykes said, lies elsewhere in the system.
“All the administrative power of the city is invested in the hands of the city manager, which is an unelected position and has no accountability to the people of Portland at all,” she explained.
In addition to issues of accountability, the system of empowering the city manager was originally rooted in racism, according to former mayoral candidate Tom MacMillan, who wrote a master’s thesis on Portland politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“The city charter has given the majority of political power, such as the authority to appoint city officials and draft the city budget, to the city manager since 1923,” MacMillan wrote in a 2019 piece for the Portland Press Herald. “In that year, voters, responding to religious and ethnic bigotry whipped up by the Ku Klux Klan, voted en masse to install a city manager and, in effect, ensure marginalized people would have little say in city government.”
In that article, MacMillan noted that throughout the years, the city manager position has allowed pro-business interests to hold an undue amount of power in Portland politics.
Current city manager Jon Jennings, who has announced he will leave his post in 2022, has repeatedly drawn the ire of activists, including the Portland Black Lives Matter movement, which called on him to resign during the summer of 2020, arguing that “since the start of his tenure in 2015, Jennings has repeatedly advocated for policies that hurt poor, predominately Black and brown people.”
People First Portland has also clashed with the city establishment as a whole, most recently after the mayor and the majority of the city council announced they would not implement the hazard pay portion of a minimum wage referendum that passed in November until 2022, despite the understanding voters had that the initiative would be implemented soon after the election.
Sykes said an effective reform to the city charter would be eliminating the city manager position and shifting much of the administrative responsibilities of that job to the mayor. In that way, Sykes said increased power would be placed in a position that is accountable to both the city council — which she hopes will be expanded and made into a paid full-time job under the city’s new charter — and the voters.
While creating a strong mayoral system is important, Sykes said there are a number of other priorities People First Portland wants considered in the upcoming charter. Some of those include expanding voting rights, shifting funds from the police to public services, and establishing a municipally-run broadband and power utility.
Other groups are also forming priorities for the city charter process.
“It’s certainly a long time coming that the people of Portland will have a direct say on how they want their government to look,” said Jason Shedlock, a regional organizer with Laborers’ International Union of North America. “And I think what we’re seeing increasingly is that the voices of working families need a seat at the table when it comes to their government structure.”
Specifically, Shedlock said he hopes the charter will ensure strong labor protections for workers.
“When we build in the city, we want to build using labor that we can be proud of, labor that sustains middle class jobs,” Shedlock said. “Those are the things we’re pushing for. Labor that’s going to be safe, labor that’s going to have health benefits and retirement so that people that work in the city can live here.”
Shedlock added that as part of the charter process, “Taxpayers should ensure that we establish Community Benefit Agreements with union labor whenever we spend public dollars building our city.”
Jess Falero and Peter McLaughlin, community organizers with Maine People’s Housing Coalition, also have high hopes for the charter revision process.
One priority for the group is increased protections for unhoused people in the city, such as having safe shelters, Falero said.
“And what that means is having staff that are trained in comprehensive trauma and [having] needs-based shelters as well around the city,” Falero explained.
McLaughlin added that along with People First Portland, People’s Housing Coalition also supports addressing the power that’s been placed in the city manager position. McLaughlin said when advocates ask the city for reforms, they are often told by elected officials that those changes are under the purview of the city manager. In that way, he argued, the current system allows officials to duck accountability from those pushing for reforms.
“Ultimately, it’s a barrier to change. It’s a blockage,” he said of the city manager system.
The charter commission process originally began in Sept. 2019, when city council members voted to re-open the charter in response to a successful petition drive by Fair Elections Portland for a ballot question on publicly-funded municipal elections. The council members argued such a move should be determined by charter amendment, rather than popular vote.
Because Portland’s charter essentially functions as the city’s constitution, Sykes said the upcoming election determining who will sit on the commission is essential. That contest will take place June 8, with nine spots open on the 12-member commission (three members have already been selected by the city council).
One worry Sykes has, though, is that the timing of the election isn’t ideal.
“It’s unfortunate that the charter commission election is happening in June, which is historically the lowest voter turnout of all elections in Portland,” she said. Advocates had originally proposed including the charter commission election on the November 2020 ballot after voters approved opening the city’s charter in July. But instead the city council slow-walked the process, delaying the election until June 2021.
Recognizing the importance of the charter being opened, Sykes said various advocacy groups in Portland have discussed putting forward candidates to serve on the body. Nominating papers became available Monday with a return deadline of March 29.
After the election, Sykes said the commission has a large amount of latitude on what aspects of the city’s charter it examines. She said the body will likely work on the charter for about a year before the proposed changes are put to a general public vote.
Sykes said she hopes the online forum People First Portland has created will serve as a resource for the commission members, giving them insight into what kind of changes residents want. She said the group is encouraging those on the left, right and center of the political spectrum to add comments and ideas for the commission.
“We want this to be as close to an open government, direct democratic process as possible,” Sykes said.
As the election process for the charter commission members gets underway, organizers are expressing optimism that candidates interested in making structural change will win in the June election.
Shedlock said he’s hopeful that will be the case, pointing to the success of the People First Portland’s referendums in November.
“I think what we’ve seen is that when issues are taken directly to the voters and explained to the voters in a way that meets them where they are and cuts through the noise of the rhetoric and the big money that is spent, the values that working families care about rise up and are important,” he said.
Falero and McLaughlin are also optimistic about the election, with McLaughlin saying the process represents an opportunity.
“I’m more hopeful than I have ever been in my ten plus years living in Portland,” he said. “There’s more people engaged with local politics and community organizing than there has ever been and that suggests some change is going to come and that folks are going to engage with this meaningful process.”
Photo: Portland City Hall | Beacon
A group of ten Republican senators, led by Susan Collins, are pitching a scaled-back stimulus package that would eliminate an increase in the minimum wage and decrease direct payments to Americans.
President Joe Biden is schduled to meet with the ten GOP senators late Monday to discuss their proposal, which would pare down many of the priorities the president put forward in his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.
One such priority is increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 and phasing out the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour was last increased in 2009. Workers that currently earn that wage live below the poverty line.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimates Biden’s plan to gradually increase the minimum wage would raise pay for nearly 32 million workers and would lift the wages of 59 percent of workers below the poverty line by 2025. The proposal would also begin to address decades of growing economic inequality, according to EPI, and would lead to particular gains in wages for women and people of color.
The Republican plan to nix the proposed minimum wage increase isn’t the first time Collins has opposed such a measure, as she voted against a bill in 2014 that would have lifted the wage floor to $10.10.
Collins has argued that a wage increase should be separated from the virus relief package, claiming that it “has nothing to do with COVID.” But millions of Americans who have seen drops in hours and pay due to the pandemic would likely benefit from an increase to the minimum wage.
In addition to scrapping the minimum wage increase, the Republican senators’ $618 billion proposal would decrease the number of Americans who would receive a stimulus check and would lower the maximum amount provided to $1,000 instead of the $1,400 put forward by Biden.
The plan would also scale back enhanced unemployment benefits to $300 a week from $400 a week under Biden’s plan and would end that program on June 30 rather than Sept. 30. In addition, the proposal does not include funding for state and local aid, even though many states, including Maine, have faced significant pressure on their budgets due to the pandemic.
According to James Myall of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, the plan falls short in a number of other areas as well, including cutting proposed rental assistance.
Full plan out Monday, but:
– no state & local $
– lower UI benefit
– no min wage increase
– no expanded low income tax credits
– no rental assistance
– no paid family & medical leave #mepolitics https://t.co/sJmrgLTGDF
— James Myall (@JamesxMyall) January 31, 2021
Part of the significance of ten Republican senators proposing an alternative stimulus deal is that combining their votes with the 50 Democrats in the Senate would provide a filibuster-proof majority to pass legislation. But because they control the Senate, Democrats don’t actually need any Republican votes for at least portions of a stimulus package if they pass a bill through budget reconciliation, which only requires a simple majority.
Biden has indicated that he’s open to using reconciliation on a COVID-19 relief package, which — despite their current squeamishness — Republicans have used in the past, including to pass tax breaks predominately for the wealthy in 2017.
That tax cut, which Collins and every other Republican senator who was present voted for, is projected to raise the deficit by $2.3 billion over 10 years. Republicans have repeatedly argued that Biden’s stimulus package is too costly.
Taking lessons from the ultimately inadequate response to the Great Recession, many economists are arguing that the next COVID-19 stimulus package must be large enough to allow for a full recovery that will reach those most in need. The GOP senators’ scaled-down proposal as well as rhetoric from some centrists, such as Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, would seem to fly in the face of those considerations.
In a statement Sunday about the meeting with the group of Republican senators, White House press secretary Jen Psaki indicated that Biden still believes the scale of relief must be significant.
“As leading economists have said, the danger now is not in doing too much: it is in doing too little,” Psaki said. “Americans of both parties are looking to their leaders to meet the moment.”
Others also pushed back against Republican efforts to make the stimulus package smaller.
“At a time of massive crises facing working families, my Republican colleagues have suddenly become very concerned about the deficit,” independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, chair of the Budget Committee, tweeted. “That’s funny. I didn’t hear these concerns when they passed trillions in tax breaks for the rich & a blank check for endless wars. What hypocrisy!”
In addition, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, chair of the Finance Committee, called the Republican plan “a non-starter.”
“The package outlined by 10 Senate Republicans is too small to provide the relief the American people need,” he said in a statement.
Photo: Getty Images, Samuel Corum
Austin Saleeby was making good tips at a serving job in Brooklyn before he contracted the coronavirus last spring and moved back home to Maine. Now, he’s living at home and working three serving jobs in Portland, making less now than he did at his one job in Brooklyn because the tips are far fewer.
“My income is definitely less than what it was,” Saleeby said.
Despite the setbacks, the 28-year-old resident of Scarborough considers himself a restaurant industry lifer.
But he also wants the industry to evolve beyond the current practice, where servers’ pay is dependent on the personal whims of the customer — a legacy of slavery.
Saleeby supports a federal proposal by President Joe Biden, which could put an end to the the national sub-minimum wage of just $2.13 an hour for workers who make at least $30 a month in tips, and ensure bartenders and restaurant workers earn a base $15 minimum wage.
“Having it be such an unreliable form of income where the house is really not paying the employee at all — that’s certainly less than ideal,” he said.
One Fair Wage takes step forward
The campaign to end the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers has gained steam in cities and states across the country. The effort took a giant step forward earlier this month when the Biden administration announced a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief proposal that included a $15 minimum wage with a provision to end sub-minimum tipped wages.
The opportunity to end the tipped wages nationally has come after years of organizing by hospitality industry workers, racial justice groups and labor groups like One Fair Wage.
Seven states, including California, Oregon and Washington, already have one fair wage for all workers. A campaign led by tipped workers in New York City last year to push for a citywide single fair wage policy was supported by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who was a bartender before entering Congress.
Maine’s campaign for One Fair Wage
The movement for One Fair Wage also went through Maine.
In 2016, 55.5 percent of Maine voters passed a $12 minimum wage ballot initiative that gradually phased out lower wages for tipped workers. Several months later, however, a sub-minimum tipped wage was reinstated by Republicans and some Democrats in the state legislature. Lawmakers were under pressure from the restaurant industry to cut the wage and tipped workers themselves came down on both sides of the issue.
“When the referendum got overturned in 2017, the arguments being made were fear-based,” said restaurant owner Michael Landgarten. “There were a lot of employers pleading with their staff saying, ‘I’ll go out of business.’”
Landgarten, who owns and operates Lil’s Cafe and is a part-owner of The Corner Pub in Kittery, got involved in the One Fair Wage campaign several years ago. He says he believes attitudes are beginning to shift among restaurant workers and even among owners he talks to.
He notes that in the states without a lower tipped wage, many of the consequences the restaurant lobby claims have not been borne out. Menu prices are not dramatically higher, restaurant employment rates are equal or higher, and servers’ tips are the same or higher as in states with a lower tipped wage.
Landgarten says the pandemic has exposed problems in the industry that he has been trying to explain to other restaurant owners.
“Millions of restaurant workers did not qualify for unemployment benefits because they didn’t report enough of their earnings through tips,” he said.
He explained that the tipped wage is also hard for states to enforce. An U.S. Department of Labor analysis shows that 84 percent of restaurants don’t follow the law that requires them to make up the difference if their workers’ tips and base wage do equal the full minimum wage.
Maine’s tipped wage is just $6.08, half of the full minimum wage.
The pandemic has frustrated Saleeby’s serving career. He has no health insurance, despite working three serving jobs. He says many of his co-workers have had to move to find more stable employment and safer working conditions.
“The job comes with a lot of stress and burden,” Saleeby said. “I have friends who have had panic attacks about being told that they had to go out to work when they felt unsafe, but they have no other option.”
He added, “I have friends who are moving all around the country just to try to find work.”
‘A direct lineage to slavery’
Tipped workers have been subject to a sub-minimum wage from the beginning. In 1938, Congress passed the country’s first minimum wage law, carving out tipped workers.
The roots of the tipping system run far deeper. During Reconstruction, restaurants and railroad companies embraced tipping because it allowed them to “hire” newly freed slaves without having to pay them. Pullman, the leading manufacturer of luxury sleeper train cars, forced Black porters to rely on tips from their white clientele for their pay.
Despite past efforts led by unions to organize restaurant workers and eliminate the tipped wage, the industry is still wedded to this historic system of exploitation.
Forty percent of tipped workers are people of color. Women make up 70 percent of tipped workers. The Center for American Progress found that female workers in the restaurant and hospitality industry make up the single-largest source of sexual-harassment complaints made with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — a rate twice that of the general workforce.
Saleeby said that while he has made a good living working in popular establishments in New York City, the image of servers bringing home hundreds of dollars in tips after a shift is not representative of the industry as a whole.
“Those are the jobs that you work your whole life to get,” he said. “They aren’t the entry-level jobs that you’re going to get right off the bat. They aren’t the Denny’s off the interstate.”
The median wage for servers in the 43 states that have a sub-minimum tipped wage is just $9.57 an hour. Prior to the pandemic, over 40 percent of tipped workers were on public assistance — the highest rate of any industry.
“The Congressional Black Caucus for years now has wanted one fair wage and seen tipped work as a location of systemic racism,” Landgarten said. “Not just that there’s a direct lineage to slavery and way tipped workers were created in this country, but actually how it plays out in terms of hunger, poverty and creating an underclass of workers.”
Landgarten said he and a group of other small business owners who support raising the tipped wage recently met with Sen. Angus King. During the meeting, they tried to convince Maine’s independent senator to support Biden’s minimum wage proposal.
Earlier this month, King, who caucuses with Democrats, indicated that he supports Biden’s minimum wage increase. But King has also been part of a bipartisan group of centrist senators including Republicans Sen. Susan Collins, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia who have met with White House officials to negotiate down Biden’s economic relief proposal.
Over the weekend, Collins and 10 other Republican senators wrote to Biden with an alternative proposal they said they could get behind. The GOP version doesn’t include a minimum wage increase.
Advocates for One Fair Wage hope the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats do not take the measure to raise wages for servers out of the package to appease the GOP. They note that Democrats could pass economic relief with a simple majority through the Senate’s budget reconciliation process, without requiring any Republican support.
They see it as a chance to modernize a system built on exploitation.
“We need to get off the drug of tipping and professionalize our industry by compensating our workers the way all the workers get compensated throughout the entire United States, with a real wage,” Landgarten said.
Top photo: Scarborough resident Austin Saleeby working in a kitchen in New York City in 2017. | Courtesy of Saleeby.