Migrant farmworkers at Wyman’s of Maine. | Getty Images
This piece was originally published at the Maine Center for Economic Policy blog and reposted in the Maine Beacon on May 4, 2023
Workers are the engine of the economy, and they all deserve dignity, respect, and to be able to take care of themselves and their loved ones. Yet, while Maine recognizes workers’ rights to bargain collectively and earn a fair wage, farm workers have long been excluded from these basic economic freedoms. Workers in Maine’s agriculture industry — which employs a disproportionately large share of Black, Latino, and Indigenous Mainers — have been subject to exemptions from basic labor laws that leave them more likely to live in poverty and make racial inequities worse.
New Deal legislation passed in the 1930s, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates minimum wage and overtime pay, and the National Labor Relations Act, which established federal labor law, excluded agricultural and domestic workers at a time when more than half of Black workers were employed in those sectors. Since then, more than a dozen states have taken it upon themselves to right this injustice by extending collective bargaining rights to farm workers. Maine has the opportunity to join other states and ensure farmworkers have the right to a minimum wage, overtime, and the freedom to collectively bargain with their employers. Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) has introduced two bills, LD 398 and LD 525, that would do just that.
Maine’s agricultural sector does not need to exploit workers to prosper
Currently, farmworkers are much more likely to live in poverty than other Mainers: about one-quarter of Maine farmhands live in poverty, making them roughly 4.5 times as likely to live below the poverty line as other Maine workers, according to a MECEP analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data from 2015-2019. Nationally, farmworkers’ wages are roughly 60% of what all other nonsupervisory workers are paid.
While Maine has many small farms, most farmworkers are employed at larger operations. The USDA’s last Census of Agriculture found Maine farms employing at least five workers accounted for 77% of all hired farmworkers, while farms with 10 or more workers employed nearly 60% of all farmworkers. As of 2021, there were 140 farms with sales of more than $1 million, with an average acreage of 2,071. Most farmworkers are employed by enterprises that can manage to offer the most basic labor rights which nearly all other workers enjoy.
Among farmworkers who are full-time U.S. residents, data suggests more than 70% usually work 40 hours or less. Around one-in-four workers work between 40 and 60 hours per week, according to the American Community Survey data. There is no doubt extending overtime protections to farmworkers would entail increased costs to agricultural employers; however, they would be feasible, especially when phased in over several years. Studies from Massachusetts and New York found extending overtime to farmworkers would increase production costs by between 2 and 9%, which could be mitigated through a combination of productivity improvements and increased prices.
Farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and are less likely to be fairly compensated for their labor. Data shows violations of labor law are common in the limited areas where federal labor protections do apply, such as laws governing the treatment of migrant workers and the payment of the federal minimum wage. Nationally, 70% of U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division (WHD) investigations at farms reveal violations of labor law, including wage theft and providing inadequate housing. Yet, the national probability that the WHD will investigate any farm employer is just more than one in one hundred.
All workers should be able to exercise their first amendment rights which includes collective bargaining
The right to collectively bargain is a first amendment right and a basic economic freedom, one that agricultural workers have been denied for more than 90 years.
Collective bargaining is associated with better health and safety, greater economic stability, and improved racial and gender equity. Unions are also associated with less turnover and higher productivity, and union contracts provide mutually agreed upon processes for resolving disputes. Unionized workers share with their employers an interest in stability and long-term growth. While workers often organize in response to poor working conditions or bad treatment from employers, they also do so to ensure they have a voice in shaping the conditions of their work.
It is very difficult for workers to successfully organize a union and reach a collective bargaining agreement with their employers. Workers organize on an employer-by-employer basis, and doing so takes significant time and effort. If LD 525 were passed into law, farmworkers would finally have a fundamental labor right, but their successful exercise of that right would presumably be limited and gradual. The bill also includes mediation and binding arbitration language that would facilitate contract settlements and help avoid work stoppages.
Farming is incredibly hard work, and rising input prices and the outsized power of wholesale buyers make small farmers’ margins tight. But these facts do not mean our food supply must depend on depriving farmworkers of basic rights that nearly all other workers have enjoyed for nearly a century. Ensuring workers have the right to collectively bargain, the minimum wage, and overtime pay is long overdue and will help Maine’s agricultural industry thrive in the years ahead.
Arthur Phillips works on MECEP’s inclusive economy portfolio and leads outreach and advocacy on labor issues. Arthur Phillips is an economic policy analyst with the Maine Center for Economic Policy. Arthur worked for seven years as a researcher and campaign strategist with the hospitality workers’ union UNITE HERE. Before that, he conducted research published by the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in economics from McGill University.