Don't Drink the Tea. Think With the WE.

Does a PLA for Maine’s Big Natural Gas Project Mean Smoother Sailing for Labor Under LePage? Probably Not.

The political spirit of Maine is fiercely independent. In 2010, many voters felt they were getting a unique leader in former businessman and Tea Party favorite for Governor, Paul LePage. Sadly, like many of his victorious 2010 Republican Governor peers — Scott Walker (WI), John Kasich (OH), and Rick Snyder (MI), for example — his in-office image quickly changed from potentially new-blooded thinker to wholsesale Right-leaning ideologue. What has ensued is an agenda of union suppression complete with constant discussion of “Right-to-Work” legislation.

A recent article in the Portland Phoenix, however, tells a guardedly optimistic tale of a brighter labor future in Maine as evidenced by recent union victories and the signing of a worker-friendly Project Labor Agreement in Kennebec County.

The U.S. natural gas boon is having an impact in Maine and has a chance to bolster state’s economy. With the encouragement of organized labor, Colorado-based Summit Utilities entered into a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) for its Kennebec Natural Gas project. The project will include construction of an 88-mile steel transmission pipeline and more than 1600 miles of plastic distribution pipes running through 17 central Maine communities. The decision to build under a PLA brought scorn from the LePage Administration which aligns itself with the anti-worker Associated Buildes & Contractors (ABC), a group that strongly opposes PLAs. After the PLA announcement, LePage said in a statement,

“While I appreciate Summit’s commitment and investment in Maine to help reduce our cost of energy, I am extremely disappointed that they have chosen to implement a PLA on this project,” LePage said in a statement issued March 21. “This action not only increases the cost of the project, but more importantly, it shuts out Maine’s construction workers and their families from good job opportunities.”

LePage’s ties to the ABC and its counterpart, the Associated General Contractors (AGC), are deeply rooted. His current Chief of Staff is the former President of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine, Kathleen Newman.

Attempts to demonize PLAs and the positive effect they have on workers may not have resonated with Summit Utilities, but Fulton explains that this may not have much impact on the challenge of promoting the pro-worker cause henceforth:

For example, LIUNA organizer Devin Mayo has his sights set on the new high-rise apartment complex recently approved for Bayside — by implementing a Community Benefit Workforce Agreement (much like a PLA, ensuring that local laborers are hired to work on a large local project), the developer could “put people to work building their own housing.” (It would also, incidentally, help the union expand its scope into a minority neighborhood.)

But achieving such lofty goals could be difficult in the current climate. Despite a pro-labor, majority-Democrat legislature, anti-union forces still wield influence. Consider LePage’s recent promise, caught during the Skowhegan Chamber of Commerce awards dinner and reported by political activist Mike Tipping at his Tipping Point blog, to “be the next Scott Walker” during the 2014 election— a reference to the controversial Wisconsin governor who sparked massive protests and a failed recall attempt when he attempted to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, scoffs at LePage’s remark. “We would hope the governor would put aside the divisive rhetoric, and hostile agenda of divide and conquer, and get to work to create economic prosperity for all Maine families,” he says.

That would indeed be nice. But in the absence of such a marked alteration of temperament, we predict organized labor will continue to broadcast its pro-worker message to the public, project by project, in a renewed attempt to remain relevant.

Dierdre Fulton’s entire article is a good read that fulfills the rarely addressed ‘Maine labor round-up’ function.


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