Photo: Activists with Migrant Justice protest outside a Hannaford supermarket.
A bill passed by the legislature earlier this year that would allow farmworkers in Maine to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining is being held by Gov. Janet Mills, delaying action on a measure proponents argue would take a step toward providing agricultural employees with the same rights as other workers.
LD 151, sponsored by Rep. Thom Harnett (D-Gardiner), would give farmworkers in Maine the opportunity to unionize and to collectively bring employment concerns to their bosses without fear of retaliation. Another bill sponsored this session by Harnett, LD 1022, that would have made farmworkers subject to state wage and overtime laws failed in the House after 20 Democrats voted with Republicans to kill the measure.
LD 151 also had a fraught legislative path. The bill passed initial votes in the House and Senate in June. But the measure then failed an enactment vote in the Senate 18-17 on the final day of the legislative session in July. However, the Senate reconsidered the bill later that same day, passing the measure after Sen. Ned Claxton (D-Androscoggin) flipped his vote and supported the bill.
The legislation, along with LD 1022, was part of an effort by Harnett to extend labor rights to workers who have historically been exempted. As Beacon previously reported, both the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, passed in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, excluded farmworkers as well as domestic workers — groups largely comprised of people of color. Those exclusions were no accident, as the historical record shows that Southern Democrats moved to specifically exempt groups of workers who were predominantly people of color from labor standards to keep them in an economically subservient position.
Discussion of that context angered Maine Republicans, who took offense to hearing about that racist history during an often chaotic legislative debate on the bills in June in which GOP House members repeatedly attempted to shut down Harnett when he brought up the historical background behind the need for his bills. Many farm owners and industry groups also opposed the measures.
LD 151 ultimately passed the legislature. But Mills, a Democrat, has thus far declined to sign it into law, delaying action on the legislation. Mills has been able to hold the bill because the legislature adjourned soon after passing the measure. However, the governor will eventually need to make a decision on the bill when lawmakers return for the next session of the 130th Legislature.
When exactly lawmakers will return is not yet clear. However, when they do — according to the Maine Constitution — Mills will have three days to make a decision on LD 151, assuming lawmakers return to session for more than three days. The bill will become law if the governor doesn’t veto it during that time.
In an interview, Harnett called on Mills to allow the bill to become law. Harnett said he has had some conversations with the administration about the bill but doesn’t know what Mills’ specific concerns are.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment asking about the governor’s reasoning for holding the bill.
“The most important thing to me is that it becomes the law,” Harnett said of LD 151. “And so all of my efforts are directed to that goal, to do everything I can to work with as diverse a group of advocates as I can gather to impress upon the administration the importance of this basic fundamental labor right that has just been unfairly and immorally denied to farmworkers.”
Harnett, who used to work as a lawyer for farmworkers, said other states have taken action recently to provide agricultural workers with basic labor protections. In particular, he cited Colorado, whose governor earlier this year signed a farmworker bill of rights that puts in place some of the strongest protections for such workers in the country. In addition, a bill making farmworkers eligible for overtime pay was signed in Washington state in May.
Maine should be taking such actions, Harnett said.
“We trot Dirigo when we want to trot out how progressive [we are] and how much we lead the nation,” he said, referring to the state’s motto. “Well, we’re not leading here and this is a real opportunity to lead,” he added of the farmworker bill.
The Mills administration did not directly offer an opinion on LD 151 during a committee hearing earlier this year, making it uncertain how the governor will ultimately come down on the bill. However, Mills has been hostile to some of the labor-related bills passed by the legislature. As Beacon previously reported, the governor vetoed a handful of pro-worker policies this session.
Harnett argued that signing LD 151 is the right move, explaining that the legislation would offer farmworkers concrete labor protections while also sending a message that Maine appreciates those who have worked in agriculture throughout the pandemic. He said it is absurd that farmworkers don’t have access to the same labor protections as other workers even though they have been classified as essential during the COVID-19 crisis.
“This to me is not a difficult call. I just don’t understand why this is so difficult,” he said. “Maybe the reality is that there are more farmers that vote than farmworkers. But I would hope that’s not how we’re making public policy for the state of Maine.”
Author: Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at evan(at)mainebeacon.com.
Source: Maine Beacon, September 10, 2021, https://mainebeacon.com/mills-delaying-action-on-bill-to-allow-maine-farmworkers-to-organize-collectively-bargain/