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State panel seeks to resolve South Portland labor dispute

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State panel seeks to resolve South Portland labor dispute


Library workers without a contract since vote to unionize in 2006

SOUTH PORTLAND — An independent panel will conduct a fact-finding session April 13 into an ongoing dispute between the city and library workers, who voted in 2006 to form a union. 

Since that time, the two sides have tried unsuccessfully to reach an agreement. A state mediator was called in last summer, but failed to bridge the divide. 

Marc Ayotte, executive director of the Maine Labor Relations Board, said the fact-finding session, which will be closed to the public, will attempt to sort through the areas where the city and library workers have failed to agree.

During fact-finding, both sides will present their arguments and supporting facts to a three-member panel of non-South Portland residents. The panel may administer oaths, and subpoena witnesses and other evidence.  

"You don't want people who have some kind of interest or stake in the outcome to be a part of this," Ayotte said. "They all serve as disinterested parties."

The employer's perspective will be represented on the panel by Robert Connors, a former school superintendent. Employee interests will be represented by Bill Murphy, a professor of labor education at the University of Maine at Orono. Michael Ryan, an arbitrator and former attorney, will be a neutral observer.

"These are people with experience and expertise," Ayotte said. 

Ayotte said the panel, in most cases, is able to complete its work in one day, but will stay "as long as it takes" to hear testimony. Afterwards, the panel will lay out the facts of the debate and issue recommendations.

Ayotte said the findings and recommendations of the panel will be confidential for 30 days after being issued. If both sides resolve their differences and agree on a contract, the document will remain sealed from the public, he said. 

However, if no agreement is reached, Ayotte said the report could be made public by either side. Then, he said, the dispute would go to arbitration, where a solution would be imposed unless the dispute centers around wages, pensions or insurance.

Neither the city nor the library union would publicly discuss their negotiations.

Library workers voted to unionize in 2006 after the Library Advisory Board was poised to rescind a more than 30-year-old policy that allowed library to close on Saturdays before Monday holidays or after Friday holidays.  

However, library administrators and city councilors have received complaints that such a schedule is not convenient for the public.

Inconsistent library hours were also highlighted in a library improvement study conducted by an outside consultant. When the report was presented to the public last fall, several library workers questioned the report's recommendation to expand the library's facilities and programming without addressing staffing.

Ongoing negotiations prompted the advisory board to stop meeting this summer, since few changes can be made to library operations until a contract is signed.

Since this is the first contract between the city and library workers, Ayotte said it is not unusual for the process to take time and involve fact-finding. 

"It's not at all strange they can't reach an agreement through direct negotiations or mediation," Ayotte said. "First contracts are a lot tougher."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net.  

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