Activists with Migrant Justice protest outside a Hannaford supermarket. | Terry Allen via Migrant Justice, Facebook
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on April 19, 2023
Maine lawmakers and advocates spoke in favor of three bills Tuesday that would expand labor protections for migrant farmworkers in an effort to correct historic wrongs rooted in racism.
Previous attempts in the Maine Legislature to create protections for migrant workers have been unsuccessful.
“Farmworkers are often hidden from view. Their homes in labor camps often cannot be seen from the road, and they often live in isolation alone and separated from the greater community,” House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) said in a public hearing held by the legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee.
She asked, “Why are the hours that farmworkers toil to feed us worth less than those of other working people? There’s no good answer to that question.”
The speaker is sponsoring two bills: LD 398, which would extend the state’s minimum wage and overtime laws to agricultural workers, and LD 525, which would give them the opportunity to unionize and collectively bring employment concerns to their bosses without fear of retaliation.
Migrant workers are currently exempt from those protections, which are guaranteed to all other employees under federal law.
Sen. Craig Hickman, a Democrat representing Kennebec County, has also introduced legislation, LD 1483, that would prevent farm owners from denying their workers from accessing services such as health care during work hours.
Hickman and Talbot Ross are two of five Black lawmakers in Augusta, comprising the most diverse legislature yet. They said their experience as descendants of slaves compels them to address protections of an underclass of agricultural workers, a majority of whom are hispanic.
“I am a descendant of slaves and sharecroppers. I’m a descendant of indentured servants,” Hickman said. “So, any opportunity that I have to mitigate against the legacy of slavery in our nation, which is all of our history, I will take.”
Hickman, who is a farm owner, added: “We inherited a system we did not create. We didn’t create this system and yet it harms many, nonetheless.”
‘I was forgotten’
Both the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, which passed in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, excluded farmworkers as well as domestic workers. The carveout was intentional, as the historical record shows that Southern members of Congress moved to specifically exempt groups of workers who were predominantly people of color from labor standards to keep them in an economically subservient position.
Since the 1960s, migrant workers have been eligible to make the federal minimum wage — currently $7.25 an hour — but they have never been covered by the state’s wage floor, currently $13.80 an hour.
Dozens of farm owners spoke out against the legislation at the hearing Tuesday, with many insisting the temporary workers they hire are paid higher than the state’s minimum wage.
Sen. Jeff Timberlake (R-Androscoggin), a co-owner of Ricker Hill Orchards, said the legislation would ruin Maine farmers.
“If you want to continue farming in the state of Maine, I think you better take a look at what we do,” he warned members of the Labor and Housing Committee.
He referenced the sale of the notorious DeCoster Egg Farms in Turner, one of the top egg producers in the country, that made headlines in the 1990s for housing workers in squalid conditions. Maine legislators at the time crafted a narrowly-focused law that only affected DeCoster workers, granting collective bargaining rights to laborers at poultry farms with 300,000 or more laying birds.
“With all the laws we are talking about, we drove a valuable industry out of the state,” Timberlake said.
Advocates with Mano en Mano, a Downeast-based organization that works with farmworkers statewide, read the testimony of several seasonal workers who could not attend the hearing because of work obligations. That testimony in some cases countered farm owners’ talking points. One migrant, who said she made less than Maine’s minimum wage, relayed her experience sleeping in a bed bug-ridden dormitory.
Another worker said a farm owner threatened to fire him after he was kicked in the head by a dairy cow. He sustained a broken nose and is permanently disfigured. “He told me that if I couldn’t work, I needed to leave. I had no option. I felt at that moment that I was forgotten,” he wrote. “But I knew that I needed the job, so I had to pay a coworker to cover my shifts.”
One-quarter of farmworkers live in poverty
Maine is not the only state where lawmakers are trying to expand rights for farmworkers. Currently, 12 states guarantee collective bargaining rights to such workers. And in 2021, state legislatures with Democratic majorities in Washington and New York passed overtime rights for farmworkers. Colorado has gone the furthest, granting state minimum wage, overtime and organizing rights to agricultural laborers.
Arthur Phillips, a policy analyst with the Maine Center for Economic Policy, said that one-quarter of farmworkers live in poverty — a rate almost four times higher than the rest of Maine.
Mike Roland, director of the Bureau of Labor Standards at the Maine Department of Labor, said Talbot Ross’ legislation would apply to nearly 35,000 migrant workers, many of whom come to Maine on guest-worker visas.
The legislative campaign by Talbot Ross and Hickman comes after other efforts in Maine have ended in disappointment. In 2022, Gov. Janet Mills drew national headlines for vetoing a bill similar to LD 525 (the collective bargaining measure) sponsored by former Democratic lawmaker Thom Harnett. The previous year, some Democrats voted with Republicans to kill a measure to extend minimum wage and overtime laws to farmworkers.
Lawmakers hope this year will be different.
“‘Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed,’” Hickman quoted President Abraham Lincoln during the hearing. “‘Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves the higher consideration.’”
Talbot Ross spoke about the moral imperative to correct the historical record.
“Generation after generation have been trapped in poverty, working under a wage scale that for more than four decades paid them a lower minimum wage and continues almost a century later,” she said. “While we are not responsible for writing that history, we are responsible for the history we make. We are responsible for what we do to change it.”
Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at email@example.com.