When I joined the Maine Legislature four years ago, I held the belief that the labor unions representing public employees were the devil incarnate, that, as Aaron Chadbourne, a former policy adviser for Gov. Paul LePage, wrote recently, these unions “celebrate conflict over cooperation,” created headlines designed to make management look bad, and truly did not care about the state that they purported to serve.

Then, wonder of wonders, I actually started talking to and working with them on bills of mutual interest — like stopping the governor from slashing the ranks of Maine’s forest rangers and leaving our state vulnerable to forest fires, closing the much-talked-about Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, or even trying to avert a state government shutdown — twice.

I don’t think the unions are perfect, nor do we agree 100 percent of the time. But whenever I, my Democratic friend from Beals, Rep. Robert Alley, or Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, have needed help representing the state workers in our districts, these “union bosses” have been there to talk strategy, answer constituent questions, and engage a community frustrated and hurt by the actions of the administration.

In short, the unions representing state workers are not, and should not, be the enemy.

Nowhere is this more evident than Chadbourne’s rehash of the Down East prison saga — six months to the day LePage unilaterally and abruptly closed the facility in the middle of the night. Chadbourne claimed that unions “blocked” the governor’s plan to build a new “pre-release” facility somewhere in Washington County, all the while leaving out the fact that had either the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee or both chambers of the Legislature actually approved such a concept, it would have amounted to a 20-bed halfway house with minimal value to either the state or the region that had embraced Downeast Correctional Facility over its 30-plus-year run.

Chadbourne alleged that unions bused in — and intimated that they exploited — laid-off workers, when, in truth, workers, their families, many of my friends and neighbors, and community leaders were begging to have their voices heard. Nearly 3,000 of them signed petitions, called legislators and wrote emails. Dozens, if not hundreds, came to the Legislature, and met with House Speaker Sara Gideon and other legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle and both ends of the hall, and pushed their representatives — both elected and union — to fight like rabid dogs for something they had created over the course of a lifetime.

Chadbourne accused unions of walking away when they — and legislators — had a chance to fully fund a functioning prison for another year, and actually develop a detailed, specific set of plans for the future. He criticized the unions for bringing suit against the administration when the Washington County commissioners and the town of Machiasport took many of the slings and arrows — and incidentally forced the administration to partially reopen the Down East prison after it had unilaterally acted to shutter the facility in the middle of a legislative debate.

In short, the facility, the laid off workers, their families, friends and communities should not be marginalized as pawns of the unions when those very unions did what they were supposed to do — cooperate and collaborate with policymakers on both sides of the aisle as well as the people they are sworn to represent.

I freely admit that I was wrong about these unions when I first joined the Legislature. It’s one thing to have an opinion that doesn’t jibe with theirs. It’s one thing to disagree and be on opposite sides of an issue, but I have seen firsthand that Maine’s state employees unions aren’t always the bad guy and shouldn’t be treated like dirt for trying to do what we are all trying to do — make Maine a better, safer, stronger place to live, work and enjoy.

In short, they deserve respect, not abuse and vitriol, and I am thankful that I have been able to get to know them better, and work with them for the betterment of Washington County.

Will Tuell, R-East Machias, represents Maine House District 139.

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