WASHINGTON – Gov. Paul LePage told reporters in Washington, D.C., this weekend that his administration is gearing up for a fight with state workers.

LePage, in an interview at the National Governors Association, praised Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is trying to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees, and expressed his support for right-to-work legislation currently making its way in the Maine Legislature.

“He’s (Walker) got a big challenge, and quite frankly, once they start reading our budget they’re going to leave Wisconsin and come to Maine because we’re going after right-to-work,” LePage told POLITICO.

LePage also remarked that workers shouldn’t have to join a union.

“I believe that the Declaration of Independence says ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” he said. “Whenever someone forces me to do something against my will, they’re infringing upon my freedoms and my liberties. And that’s what I think we’re doing in Maine when we have fair share, which means that you are required to belong to a union, you’re required to pay dues but you don’t want to participate. I find that to be against everything the United States of America stands for.”

LePage’s comment that Maine workers are forced to join a union has sparked debate.

Private sector workers cannot be forced to join a union under the freedom of association clause in the First Amendment, a finding backed by several court decisions.

State laws differ on public employees. According to Marc Ayotte, the executive director of the Maine Labor Relations Board, Maine law follows the guidelines of the association clause in prohibiting public workers from being forced to join a union. However, most collective bargaining agreements in the public sector require workers opting out of the union to pay a “service fee” to unions.

Ayotte said the fee is less than full union dues. It’s required because Maine law currently obligates public employee unions to represent nonunion workers during grievances and other matters.

The service fee obligation for public employees is at the heart of the legislation sponsored by Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway. Winsor said last week that his right-to-work bill would eliminate the service fee requirement, as well as the provision requiring unions to represent nonunion employees.

Patrick Semmens, with The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said that federal courts have reaffirmed a worker’s right to leave a union. However, he said, those decisions have not meant that a worker’s freedom of association rights are fully protected.

“In fact employees are still forced to accept union ‘representation,’” Semmens wrote in an e-mail, adding that workers can’t negotiate their own contract.

He said that public and private workers have to pay the service fee or they can be terminated.

Semmens said many workers are unaware they can leave the union because union officials fail to inform them of that right.

Democrats said Monday that labor groups are expected to begin demonstrating at the State House on Thursday.

On Monday, Matt Schlobohm of the Maine AFL-CIO said LePage’s comments in D.C. showed that he sided with corporations, not working people.

“It’s unfortunate that Gov. LePage is looking to pick a fight with working families in Maine,” Schlobohm said. “Instead of focusing on real problems facing Maine people, the governor appears intent to pursue an extremist agenda that rolls back workers’ rights, makes it harder for working people to make a decent living and moves Maine in the wrong direction.”

He added, “This is an out-of-state agenda that is much more about partisan political attacks than it is about Maine priorities. . . . Instead of focusing on shared prosperity for all, the governor is siding with corporate CEOs who are trying to weaken or eliminate unions so workers can’t restore balance to the economy.”

A counter rally by the group Of the People has also been planned.

Check out this week’s Political Pulse column in the Sun Journal and at sunjournal.com for more on Maine’s looming labor fight.