AUGUSTA, Maine — The major union representing Maine state workers filed a labor relations complaint on Friday against Gov. Janet Mills’ administration, alleging a top negotiator is refusing to bargain in good faith over a new contract.

The move from the Maine Service Employees Association to the Maine Labor Relations Board was a major escalation between the liberal union representing roughly 9,000 state employees and the Democratic governor’s administration, though the sides also had difficult negotiations ahead of a 2019 contract deal.

The union’s 13-page complaint, which was first reported by the news arm of the conservative Maine Policy Institute on Friday, centers on Breena Bissell, Maine’s human resources chief, and her posture in early negotiations around a new contract to replace the one that will expire at the end of the current fiscal year in late June.

At a Wednesday meeting, the union alleges that Bissell refused to allow it to have more than 12 members on its bargaining team and said the state would determine whether those employees were needed to work instead of being allowed to join contract talks. Those conditions amount to an illegal refusal to negotiate in good faith, the union alleges.

“This behavior is unlawful and unacceptable,” Dean Staffieri, the union’s president, told workers in a Friday afternoon email. “Bargaining is about both sides sitting down as equals to meet, discuss proposals and reach agreement that both can agree to.”

The union’s complaint is “a grave misstatement of facts” that the state will address in a response to the labor board, Sharon Huntley, a spokesperson for Mills’ budget department, said.

“We hope we are able to initiate contract negotiations soon, consistent with the agreed upon language of the contract, so that we may continue to support State of Maine employees,” she said.

The labor dispute between the state and union comes at a sensitive time for the state workforce. A study conducted for the state in late 2020 found that the state’s base pay is consistently lower than at similar public- and private-sector employers, finding midpoint salaries were only set at 85 percent of the market average.

The union has criticized the state for making little progress on a plan to reclassify the state workforce, with a top official telling lawmakers last month that the data used to study pay competitiveness is now old and not reflective of the vast economic changes during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a wider worker shortage across sectors.

Mills was protested by state workers in the run-up to their 2019 contract deal, which included a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise that rose to 4 percent by 2020. The compensation study was also secured in that bargain, which came in August after the last contract had expired.

In the current contract negotiated in 2021, the union won a $2,000 payment to employees as well as another pay increase and more parental leave. It backed Mills in her 2022 campaign against former Gov. Paul LePage while endorsing almost every Democratic legislative candidate on the ballot that year.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...