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Opinion

Date: 12/17/10

Labor Committee flap much ado about nothing

By Rep. Rich Cebra

When Maine voters elected Republican majorities in the House and Senate last month, they sent a clear message. They want action on jobs and the state's economy.

For too long, we have watched as our young people leave here because they see greater career opportunities in other states. For too long, we have seen jobs disappear and more and more people slide into welfare dependency. And for too long, we have wondered why Maine has to consistently suffer from economic malaise.

Republicans are already making changes that promise a better future. The Legislature doesn't reconvene until January 6th, but there's plenty of activity at the State House. Republican leaders have already introduced a bill aimed at eliminating needless red tape and regulations that kill jobs and stifle business investment. And on December 17, the Joint Committee on Rules met to establish the process and procedures for legislative action. This is customary practice for any new Legislature. Ordinarily, rule changes are considered "inside baseball" because they are almost invisible to casual observers. This time was different.

A proposal to eliminate the Labor Committee and merge it into a joint business-labor panel touched off a storm of protest. Union activists staged a rally in the State House and attracted plenty of media coverage. One Democratic senator actually said the GOP proposal amounted to "lifting their leg on the working people of Maine." Union bloggers said the Labor Committee change was a prelude to repealing the child labor laws and bringing back sweatshops. A millworker from Bucksport told the Lewiston Sun Journal that Republicans were telling ordinary workers that they "didn't count."

This absurd and preposterous reaction obscured the actual reason for making the change. The idea was to pull business and labor into a single committee because they belong together. Under the previous system, decisions about business and workforce issues were made in a vacuum, completely independent of each other, by different committees, as if they had nothing in common. But the fact of the matter is, you can't have labor without business, and you can't run a business without labor. It just makes sense to have them under one roof. Issues that involve businesses by their very nature involve workers.

As a member of the Rules Committee, I never heard any Republican say a negative word about labor. There was no nefarious scheme to diminish the importance of workers or to run unions off to the sidelines. Republicans understand that workers and business have a shared stake in Maine's future.

As an additional benefit, the change will streamline the legislative process, increase efficiency and save money. It also will bring decisions regarding business and labor into the modern age. The Labor Committee was created during the industrial revolution of the late 1800s. That was an era when laborers were often exploited and worked in harsh and dangerous conditions. Weekends off and paid holidays didn't exist; there were no fringe benefits.

Fortunately, that's all ancient history, but we have continued with this archaic system, backed by people who claim that only a separate labor committee can effectively address issues of importance to workers. It's worth noting that, at the federal level, Congress has no committee dedicated solely to labor issues. At the state level, two-thirds of state legislatures handle labor matters in committees with multiple jurisdictions. In short, the committee realignment that will take place in Augusta is mainstream, hardly deserving of the animosity and vitriol that was unleashed against Republicans.

It's also worth noting that the unionized work force in Maine is primarily in the public sector, with the teachers union and the state employees union. Last year, more than 44 percent of Maine's public employees belonged to unions, compared to just 5 percent of Maine's private company employees. That's a stark difference. It's also fair to point out that public employees do very well relative to their private-sector counterparts in terms of wages, health insurance and pensions.

In the end, cooler heads prevailed following a lengthy meeting of legislative leaders during the afternoon of Wednesday, December 15. Later in the day, the Rules Committee voted unanimously - 10 to zero - to merge the Labor Committee into a new committee to be called Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development.

The bottom line is we have reduced the number of committees from 17 to 16 and reached an agreement that is fair to all sides. The voice of labor will be heard just as before, and the voice of business will be heard just as before. Only now they will be heard in the same room, by the same committee, because employers and employees have a common stake in a better future for Maine.

State Rep. Rich Cebra (R-Naples) is serving his fourth term in the Maine House

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