The hypocrisy of the business lobby / by Ethan Strimling

Workers with the national Fight for $15 movement. | Scott Olson, Getty Images

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on May 16, 2023

In 2019, when the landmark paid time off bill, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett and championed by the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) with the backing of 80,000 petition signers, was passed, Governor Janet Mills insisted that a small provision be included in the bill that was demanded by the business community. 

That provision is called a “preemption.” A preemption means that the state is now “owning the field” on the regulation of paid days off. In essence, no municipality can mandate additional PTO to the policy if the town felt their workers needed more time off or to cover the 15% of workers who were left out.

The business community demanded this clause for one reason and one reason only — it is much harder for them to control 400+ municipalities in Maine than it is one branch of the legislature. They knew the bill would pass, so in exchange for their muted opposition, they wanted to control the fight in the future.

The preemption allowed them to keep their fight against expanded benefits for workers to one location. The gun lobby has a similar preemption, as does UBER over their gig workers.

But, of course, this is not the stated reason for their support of the preemption. 

The business community’s stated reason for supporting preemptions, and the reason they often use when opposing local efforts to regulate business, is that we “can’t have a patchwork of laws between towns.” They claim this will encourage a business to leave one community and set up shop in another. Or, for those businesses with multiple locations in different towns to accidentally violate the rules because they do business in both jurisdictions. Or, it is bad for consumers, because prices in one town will have to go up to meet the new minimum.

There is at least one GOP bill this session that seeks to do this —“An Act to Promote Minimum Wage Consistency by Limiting the Authority of Municipalities Regarding Minimum Hourly Pay.” It would create a preemption for minimum wage laws, basically blocking all local efforts to raise minimum wages for local workers.

None of their arguments are true, of course. Passing rent control in South Portland, as occurred this year, has not and will not push housing development to Scarborough. Or if Lewiston passed greener standards for new offices, it will not push all new businesses to Auburn. Or raising the minimum wage in Rockland and Portland to $15, as will occur for both in 2024, has not caused all the restaurants to move to Rockport and Westbrook.

Now for the hypocrisy: Last week, the Maine Legislature’s Labor Committee in the state legislature advanced a statewide minimum wage hike to $15 an hour in 2024, mirroring Rockland and Portland. 

No more patchwork. Exactly what the business community has said they want. 

Consistency between cities and towns, so small and large businesses alike won’t be incentivized to leave one town for another, and won’t have different rules to follow when their workers cross city boundaries.

You would think they would now be speaking in favor of this fight for $15. But, of course, they aren’t. Are we surprised? Of course not. Consistency from conservatives is a fantasy. 

Which is it, business lobby? Do you want a consistent minimum wage across jurisdictions or do you just want to keep the minimum wage as low as possible for as many workers as you can?

But let us all remember this day when industry opposes the next local initiative that tries to protect workers, tenants or our environment. When they say, “We need to do this at the state level,” it’s clear what they really mean is, “We don’t want it anywhere.”

Ethan Strimling served ten years as Mayor and State Senator for Portland, Maine.

Workers confront bosses at Starbucks headquarters, NLRB backs them / by Mark Gruenberg

Starbucks workers like these in Iowa City are part of a nationwide wave of workers unionizing. | Starbucks Workers United/Twitter

Originally published in the People’s World on May 12, 2023

NEW YORK—Starbucks workers seeking to unionize the giant coffee chain have had a busy and hectic time, centered around a May Day march on its Manhattan headquarters to demand the firm sit down and bargain contracts with workers at unionized stores, as a group.

So did a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge in Boston, Bloomberg News reported. The judge filed his overriding labor law-breaking decision on April 26, even before dozens of New York-New Jersey metro area Starbucks workers jammed the corporation’s lobby on May 1. They met silence from a stony-faced security guard.

“Instead of engaging in a conversation, corporate managers just stood there silently and did not accept the petition, which was signed by workers and local elected officials in solidarity,” Starbucks Workers United tweeted after posting video of the May Day standoff on its twitter feed. “Why is  @Starbucks corporate so afraid of even speaking w/ workers, who it calls partners?”

“Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan,” successor to founder and lead stockholder Howard Schultz, “is continuing Starbucks’ ruthless union-busting campaign that includes firing over 230 union leaders across the country and shuttering union stores. Starbucks continues to attempt to undercut the union by refusing to bargain.”

It uses ‘flimsy complaints such as the size of the bargaining committee,” the unionists said in a statement before a Chicago press conference, also on May Day.

The NLRB’s administrative law judge agreed. He declared Starbucks broke labor law by refusing to bargain with the workers at a minimum of 144 stores as a group, as the pro-union workers and SWU demand.

The judge’s ruling doesn’t count more NLRB charges filed against Starbucks at four Chicago stores, also on May Day. Most involved rampant labor law-breaking at the Hyde Park Starbucks, at East 55th St. and South Woodlawn Ave., across 55th from the University of Chicago.

Those counts include illegal discipline, illegal one-on-one meetings, and eventual illegal firing last year of Hyde Park pro-union worker Jasper Booth-Hodges, NLRB Administrative Law Judge Geoffrey Carter said. He added Starbucks illegally disciplined worker Maria Fantozzi of the Logan Square store for wearing an anti-coronavirus mask sporting the words, “United we bargain, divided we beg.”

Other Chicago charges were filed against Starbucks stores on the North Side, including the store at North Clark St. and North Ridge Ave. There City Councilman Andre Vasquez, D-40th Ward, joined workers to demand bargaining, too, and to denounce company labor law-breaking.

That labor law-breaking, according to the administrative law judge, includes refusal to bargain in good faith, just like in the larger case.

In the big NLRB complaint, Starbucks retorted it wants to bargain store by store, one by one, with attendance limited and excluding local bargaining committees for that particular store. Starbucks also demands banning any Starbucks worker who cares to zoom in.

The NLRB’s mass bargaining ruling, from in its Boston region, was followed by the May Day march and the workers’ decision to post all their negotiating points on the Internet.

The action didn’t stop when May Day ended. It just shifted elsewhere. The most-notable shift was a May 10 sit-in at Cornell University’s administration building. That group noted Starbucks retaliated for pro-union votes at its four Ithaca, N.Y., area stores by declaring it will close them.

Students and workers hit back with their sit-in and a petition demanding Cornell sever all ties with Starbucks and find another coffee vendor for its dining halls. The university president accepted the petition, but made no promises.

The big action, though, was on the Internet and in the Big Apple.

In New York, baristas and other workers jammed the company’s lobby, brandishing their petition that Starbucks finally come to the bargaining table, and reading summaries of their stands. Individual workers stepped forward to complain of bad conditions, up to and including sexual harassment by local managers and customers. The stony-faced security guard did not reply.

“Instead of engaging in a conversation, corporate managers just stood there silently and did not accept the petition, which was signed by workers and local elected officials in solidarity,” Starbucks Workers United tweeted after posting video of the May Day standoff on its twitter feed. “Why is  @Starbucks corporate so afraid of even speaking w/workers, who it calls partners?”

“Starbucks workers from California to Maine, from Florida to Washington, face a lot of the same issues such as short staffing and unpredictable schedules,” SWU explained. “Low wages and unaffordable healthcare. Sexual and racial harassment, broken equipment, unfair discipline, and workplace favoritism. For this reason, we are seeking a national framework of agreements with Starbucks that, when signed, will solve these issues we’re all facing.”

Then, just to ensure the world knows what the Starbucks workers want, they started reading summaries of their positions, and posted them in detail on SWU’s site. Summaries include:

  • Right to organize: “Immediately halt all interference and intimidation and to agree to a fair process for union votes. When we secure Fair Election Principles as part of our contract with Starbucks, the company will be held to an ethical code of conduct designed to safeguard the organizing process.”
  • Discipline only for just cause, establishment of a grievance procedure and seniority rights, all spelled out within the contract covering all the stores.
  • Base pay of $20 hourly for baristas, with higher bases in high-cost areas, and 5% annual raises plus cost-of-living adjustments. And Starbucks must enroll all its workers, and pay on their behalf, into its 401(k) plan, regardless of how many hours they work.
  • Guaranteed and consistent working schedules.
  • Safety on the job to feature “a strong commitment to racial justice, including protections against racial harassment and bigotry from customers, co-workers and managers and zero tolerance of sexual harassment.” Starbucks would have to make and keep “respect and dignity commitments” to workers, and establish joint safety committees at each store to tackle unsafe working conditions.
  • 100% company-paid health insurance with $10 maximum worker co-pays for full- and part-timers. The insurance should cover not just medical care and prescription drugs but dental and vision care and life insurance, and “improved access to mental health services.” Insurance would also cover domestic partners and would restore benefits to transgender people. Starbucks cut them off last Oct. 1.

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People’s World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).

“Maybe, just maybe, working people deserve to afford a damn hamburger!” / by Mark Gruenberg

When it was suggested that raising the minimum wage would be a problem for companies that need to make profits Sen. Sanders responded that a sharp raise in the wage would help everyone. He declared: “Maybe, just maybe, working people deserve to be able to afford a damn hamburger.” | Bernie Sanders, via Twitter

Originally published in the People’s World on May 5, 2023

WASHINGTON—With strong union support—and a phalanx of low-wage workers of color backing him—Senate Labor Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., formally introduced his legislation raising the federal minimum wage to $17 an hour over five years.

Though Sanders promised the panel will advance the legislation on May 14, getting it beyond that may be tough—which is where the workers, the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees, represented by Presidents Liz Shuler and Mary Kay Henry, come into the picture.

That’s because both said, in interviews after Sanders’ Capitol Hill May 4 outdoor press conference, that organized labor will put pressure on lawmakers to approve the increase, overcoming expected corporate and Republican opposition.

If enacted, Sanders’s legislation, would be the first minimum wage hike law since 2007. That increase stretched through 2009, to the current federal minimum, $7.25.

“In the year 2023, in the richest country in the history of the world, nobody should have to be working for starvation wages,” Sanders, workers’ longest, strongest congressional supporter, stated. “Maybe, just maybe, working people deserve to afford a damn hamburger.”

Workers at the press conference welcomed his increase, as both the senator and other speakers pointed out that the current $7.25 hourly isn’t enough to live on. That level also hurts the economy by dragging low-wage workers down, said Economic Policy Institute President Heidi Shierholz.

The low-wage workers would spend the minimum wage increase on basics, like food, rent and health care, benefiting other workers, she explained. Meanwhile the rich expand the wage and wealth gap—and sock their money away or spend it on “billionaires’ rockets,” Shuler added.

Disproportionate shares of those low-wage and minimum-wage workers are people of color, working women and living in the South and other “red” states, speakers noted. Even voters in those states, given the choice at the ballot box, raise minimum wages, Sanders said.

Voters want a big increase

Nebraska did so, to $15, by a 60% vote last year, he noted. But white Republican legislatures in red states veto “blue” cities’ attempts to follow that lead. Sanders’s bill calls for a raise to a $17 minimum, spread over five years, because $17 an hour now equals $15 when he last tried to raise the wage, two years ago. Democratic Senate defections led to that loss.

“I’m here to bring the voices of 12 and a half million workers and 60 unions to this fight,” said Shuler. “I travel this country, talking to working people,” and the minimum wage workers she meets “are dishwashers, health care workers, Walmart greeters” and their colleagues.

“They tell me, ‘I can’t afford food.’ ‘I can’t go to the doctor.’ ‘I might be evicted because I can’t pay the rent’” while earning $7.25 an hour, even if they often work at two or three low-paying jobs. Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 hourly “is not radical.”

“We asked workers at a big summit last week” of low-wage workers how they would react to a minimum wage hike, Shuler added. “’I would quit my second job.’ ‘I would quit my third job.’ ‘I would spend more time with my family,’” were among the replies.

Mama Cookie Bradley of Eutawville, S.C. agreed. One of several workers at the press conference, she explained that after 30 years in South Carolina at minimum wage jobs at McDonald’s and Dollar General, she finally got a job paying $15 an hour. But it’s in Charleston, an hour-and-a-half one-way drive from Eutawville for Bradley, 64.

South Carolina is one of a phalanx of “red” states which refuse to raise their own minimum wages. In some, notably Alabama, right-wing Republican state lawmakers, beholden to the low-wage fast-food and restaurant industry, block their “blue” cities from hiking their own minimum wages, by nullifying city authority to enact pro-worker laws.

With a pattern like that, “That’s why we need a federal minimum wage” increase, said Sanders.

The workers laid out the case for how raising the minimum wage would help them and their families, and while Economic Policy Institute President Heidi Shierholz made the case economically for both the workers and the economy.

Henry, Shuler and SEIU Legislative Director John Gray discussed in follow-up interviews how to get the minimum wage hike past corporate and Republican opposition. And while he did not issue a statement for the increase after the May 4 press conference, Democratic President Joe Biden supports the $15 minimum wage, too.

In January 2022, in announcing his $15 minimum for 70,000 federal workers and 300,000 more who told for federal contractors, Biden said all workers should earn at least $15. “I continue to urge Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, so that American workers can have a job that delivers dignity,” he said then.

Shuler said the labor movement would incorporate the minimum wage hike bill into its ongoing grass-roots political organizing “in all 50 states.” And unlike the past, she pointed out, labor is pushing grass-roots politics now, 365 days a year.

“You keep it connected to politics and mobilization,” she said of the minimum wage hike. “It’s an issue everybody understands.”

Henry and Gray said the threat of ballot box revenge may be the goad bringing over needed votes in the Republican-run House. She believes Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., will hear from his members about overwhelming constituent support for raising the minimum wage, and retribution in November 2024 if they vote “no.” So they’ll vote “yes.”

“The idea is he’ll give them”—other Republicans—“a pass,” said Gray.

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People’s World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).

Accusing hospital execs of endangering patients, nurses union pushes for safe staffing law / by Dan Neumann

Unionized nurses enter the Cross Building for a public hearing on safe staffing levels. | Courtesy of the Maine AFL-CIO

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on May 5, 2023

Understaffing at Maine hospitals has reached unsafe levels and that’s the fault of their executives, nurses say.

“We work in systems that set us up to fail,” said Mary Kate O’Sullivan, a registered nurse at Maine Medical Center in Portland, who said her unit recently went to a staffing ratio of one nurse to seven patients. “There were nine patient falls on the unit in the month of April. Two Wednesdays ago, a patient fell and broke their hip. Nurses know that when staffing isn’t safe, it’s not a question of whether patients will have falls, it’s when.”

O’Sullivan, a third-generation nurse, spoke at a public hearing in favor of the Maine Quality Care Act, a bill that would require safe nurse-to-patient ratios in the state’s healthcare facilities. 

“Unsafe ratios are dehumanizing and degrading,” she said. “It looks like human beings sitting in their stool and urine, embarrassed and powerless.”

Sen. Stacy Brenner (D-Cumberland), the sponsor of the bill, explained that it’s not a worker shortage driving the problem, but the decisions of hospital executives, who refuse to pay for a robust pool of registered nurses from which to draw when scheduling shifts.

“Nationally, there are nearly one million licensed RNs who aren’t working in nursing. Maine has approximately 28,000 nurses licensed in the state, but only 56% of them are working,” said Brenner, who began her career as a nurse midwife attending to births at Mercy Hospital in Portland. “Maine does not have a shortage of nurses. We have a workplace culture where nurses aren’t interested in engaging in the available jobs.”

Brenner’s legislation is backed by the state’s largest nursing union, the Maine State Nurses Association, which hosted a press conference on Tuesday ahead of the hearing. Dozens of nurses clad in union red traveled to Augusta to speak in favor of Brenner’s bill.

California was the first state in 2004 to pass a law mandating nurse-to-patient ratios for acute care, but legislative efforts since then in other states have floundered under industry pressure, leaving the labor movement to revive the issue.

Resembling teacher unions across the country that in recent years have turned contract fights into platforms to address far bigger political problems like underfunded public schools, nurses unions have turned their attention to highlighting some of the biggest systemic failings of the for-profit hospital industry. Seven thousand nurses in New York City went on strike earlier this year for a new contract that included better nurse-to-patient ratios. 

Nurses hold a press conference in support of the Maine Quality Care Act. | Courtesy of the Maine AFL-CIO

MSNA has also broadened its scope since scoring a major victory in 2021 by helping to unionize the state’s largest hospital, Maine Medical Center. As Beacon previously reported, Maine Med nurses joined last year with members of National Nurses United (NNU), the country’s largest nurses union, to put a spotlight on the issue of chronic understaffing. 

Staffing problems in Maine came to the fore during the pandemic, most notably when Gov. Janet Mills deployed the National Guard to handle non-clinical jobs in hospitals to free up staff. But nurses insist it’s been a long growing problem brought about by an industry that is cutting corners on labor costs to remain profitable.

According to NNU, which conducted a survey of thousands of registered nurses across the country in 2021, 82.5% said at least half of their shifts were unsafely staffed. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said that they have considered leaving their position. 

During Thursday’s hearing, nurses pushed back against the notion that staff shortages persist because not enough people are going into the profession. They pointed to the numerous measures passed by the Maine Legislature over the years to incentivize young people to enter the field through policies such as tuition forgiveness. 

“Educating more nurses can’t be the only answer to this problem. Nurses are leaving at increasingly alarming rates,” said Lewiston resident Mariah Pfeiffer, a labor and delivery nurse. “The culture of efficiency and money saving in the healthcare industry is hurting us all. Hospitals may be saving money, but patients pay more and receive less care and nurses continue to suffer.”

Brenner’s legislation would establish minimum staffing requirements based on patient needs. The bill outlines numerous health conditions and proposes nurse-to-patient ratios for those conditions depending on how acute they are. 

For example, one registered nurse could be assigned just one patient receiving critical care or intensive care, or just one patient who requires trauma services, or just one patient who is in active labor. The ratio increases for less acute conditions, such as one nurse could attend to two patients who are antepartum and require continuous fetal monitoring, or one nurse could monitor three patients who are antepartum and not in active labor.

The bill would protect nurses from retaliation for voicing concerns about staffing issues, such as being assigned patients they might not be qualified to attend to.

“Studies show that when registered nurses are forced to care for too many patients at one time patients are at higher risk of preventable medical errors, avoidable complications, falls and injuries, pressure sores, increased length of stay, and readmissions,” Brenner said.

Brenner anticipated that the hospital industry would stand in strong opposition to her bill. 

“They will tell you that hospitals will close down, go broke or never find enough nurses to fill necessary positions,” she said. “They will ask for studies and say they are already working hard to achieve quality care goals.”

As predicted, hospital industry groups, as well as some nursing associations and several Republican members of the legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee, held a press conference ahead of the hearing to argue that it would put a significant burden on an industry already struggling to fill nursing jobs.

Nurses said that hospital executives couldn’t be trusted to regulate themselves.

“We need legislation if we want to attract nurses back to the bedside,” O’Sullivan said. “We cannot simply trust hospital administrators to practice safe staffing without them being bound by law to do it. That is abundantly clear as they so fervently lobby against this bill.”

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

Opinion: Farmworkers deserve the same rights as all workers / by Arthur Phillips

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.

Rent control proponents say Portland tenants must mobilize against landlord-backed referendum / by Evan Popp

Photo of Portland by Corey Templeton

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on May 1, 2023

In November, Portland voters approved a ballot measure that limits rent increases to a maximum of 5% after a tenant voluntarily leaves a unit and a new resident comes in. Proponents say that initiative, along with a referendum passed in 2020 to cap rent increases at the rate of inflation and create a board to consider exceptions to price hikes, has allowed Maine’s largest city to implement some of the best protections for tenants on the East Coast amid a pronounced statewide affordable housing crisis. 

The latest protection against increasing rents, however, could be short-lived if a group of landlords gets their way. 

On June 13, Portland voters will consider another referendum, this one spearheaded by the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine, previously known as the Southern Maine Landlord Association. The group, which unsuccessfully sued the city of Portland over the 2020 rent control referendum, spent the winter gathering the signatures needed to place its measure on the June ballot, even as some residents accused the organization’s signature collectors of using deceptive and misleading tactics

The proposed referendum triggered by that campaign would change the part of the 2022 law passed by Portland voters that established 5% as the maximum rent increase a landlord can impose on a new tenant after a previous tenant leaves voluntarily. Under the proposal, property owners would instead be able to increase rent as much as they want in such situations. 

Proponents of rent control are worried about the ballot measure. 

“This is really bad. It’s a pretty clear attempt to undo the rent control laws that Portland has overwhelmingly passed over the last couple of years, twice now,” said Rose DuBois, chair of the Campaign for a Livable Portland, an initiative of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America, which spearheaded the push for the 2020 and 2022 laws. 

Data on how Portland’s rent control initiatives have worked thus far is limited, given that the laws were only passed in the last couple of years. However, the city’s rent board reported that from January 2021 to November 2021, the price of rent-controlled units in the city rose by an average of 1.6% versus an increase in prices of 2.5% for units not subject to rent control rules. 

Sam Spadafore, a tenants’ rights advocate in Portland who opposes June’s landlord-backed referendum, said enforcement of the rent control regulations by the city has been an issue. Still, Spadafore said the measures at least create a legal obligation for landlords to undergo a process before they are allowed to raise rents by a large amount. 

However, in a statement, Rep. David Boyer, a Republican from Poland who owns two housing units in Portland and is involved with the Rental Housing Alliance campaign, argued that the current rent control law needs fixing and asked Portland voters to support the group’s Question A on the ballot.

“The current policy has resulted in tenants having their rents raised yearly,” Boyer said. “Previously, most housing providers only raised the rent once a tenant voluntarily vacated the unit. Yes on A will align Portland’s rent control ordinance with similar rent control laws across the country, while still retaining all existing tenants protections including limits on rent raises and eviction protections.”

But opponents of the June referendum argue that rent control has prevented expensive housing prices in Portland from going even higher. A study from October — before the 5% rent increase cap for a voluntary apartment turnover was passed — found that Portland had among the highest median rents in the country, ranking 18th for the cost of a one-bedroom apartment among cities across the country.

“Rents are already very high in Portland, and the current rent control law is helping stabilize them so they don’t skyrocket even more,” DuBois said. “Undoing that stabilization will allow the rents to just skyrocket, so we need to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Landlords spending big money on referendum  

In a sign of how big a priority the push to roll back rent control is for real estate and property interests, money has poured in to support the proposal. The Committee to Improve Rent Control — a group associated with the Rental Housing Alliance — reported on an April 10 financial report that it had raised nearly $80,000 in support of the referendum. 

Much of that has come in large chunks from landlords or landlord-affiliated groups, including $15,000 from the Rental Housing Alliance itself and $10,000 from the property management company 132 Marginal Way LLC. Furthermore, the Greater Portland Board of Realtors conducted a survey for the committee that amounted to an in-kind contribution of a little over $29,000. 

In contrast, Maine DSA’s Livable Portland Campaign reported raising a little over $5,900 on its April financial report. That type of discrepancy is reminiscent of 2022, when Maine DSA pushed for the successful rent control measure but was defeated on referendums that would have raised the city’s minimum wage to $18 an hour over three years — including for tipped workers — and limited short-term rentals. Maine DSA and grassroots organizers were outspent by corporate opponents 54-1 in that election.  

DuBois criticized the amount of money landlord groups and real estate interests are putting toward the upcoming June referendum. 

“I would just point out that if they have all this money to spend on an election campaign, then maybe we don’t need to be letting them raise rents,” DuBois said. 

Advocates call for mobilization

In response to the significant money being spent by real estate groups, advocates said those who oppose the referendum and want to keep Portland’s rent control laws in place must get organized. 

Spadafore said the stakes are extremely high, arguing that the outcome of the ballot measure could shape the future of the city for years to come. 

“The issue is, we’re not going to have people who work in Portland be able to live here” if the referendum passes, Spadafore said. “We’re already seeing that happen. People are moving to other cities, and then that also in turn … increases the rent in other cities and then we continue to perpetuate this issue of a housing crisis.” 

Spadafore said people who want to see Portland remain affordable must show up and vote in the June 13 election. Landlords and their allies will likely come out in force to vote, making it crucial that tenants do so as well, Spadafore said.

“I just want it to be really clear that people have so much to lose with this one and it only takes a little bit of time to show up to vote,” Spadafore said, urging people to bring their friends to the polls as well. 

DuBois said Maine DSA is starting a field operation in opposition to the referendum, making phone calls, knocking on doors, mailing postcards and passing out flyers. 

DuBois and Spadafore both said the referendum being in June during an off year is a challenge, as many people may not be thinking about voting during that time.

That concern was echoed by Tobin Williamson, advocacy manager for the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC), who said off-cycle elections often feature less participation, particularly among communities of color. 

Williamson said that MIRC worries the Rental Housing Alliance referendum would exacerbate Portland’s housing availability and affordability crisis at a time when shelter beds are being filled rapidly and many asylum-seekers — who can’t work for several months due to federal immigration law — are arriving in Portland.  

“Reducing the already scant availability of affordable housing would also have negative impacts on Portland’s economy, since some workers would no longer be able to afford to live near their work,” he said. “Moreover, raising rents in Portland would hardly be a solution to Maine’s housing crisis; if nothing else, it would make it even worse.” 

Portland is just one part of Maine’s housing crisis 

Along with Portland, prices are high across Maine, as fair market rents have risen in Maine every year since 2020 and are projected to rise in 2023 once more, according to MaineHousing. In addition, the state continues to grapple with a shortage of about 20,000 affordable housing units, with an estimated 27,000 Maine households on the waitlist for Section 8 vouchers. All of that comes as the number of eviction filings in the state jumped 27% in 2022 over 2021. 

In response to those issues, advocates partnered with Maine legislators to introduce a slate of housing justice bills this year. Within the slate are measures to prevent retaliatory evictions, bar landlords from discriminating against tenants with a previous eviction, increase the notice at-will tenants must receive before an eviction, provide more notice to tenants for rent increases, ban rental application fees, and ensure that those facing eviction have access to legal representation, among others. 

The bills, however, have sparked an onslaught of opposition from landlords that seems to be having an impact. Last month, the Democratic-led Judiciary Committee advanced a number of those bills after introducing amendments that significantly reduced the scope of the proposals. 

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

Maine could finally expand overtime pay for thousands of workers / by Dan Neumann

UPS drivers and union leaders of Teamsters Local 174 protest excessive overtime in Seattle in 2004. | Ron Wurzer, Getty

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on April 26, 2023

A Maine lawmaker has introduced legislation that would make thousands of more workers eligible for overtime pay when they work over 40 hours. 

Right now, the salary threshold in Maine for being exempt from overtime protections is just $41,400 a year, meaning that if a salaried worker makes more than that, they don’t automatically qualify for time-and-a-half overtime pay.

LD 513, sponsored by Sen. Mike Tipping (D-Orono), would raise Maine’s overtime threshold to $62,100 by 2026. The measure would peg the threshold to 4,500 times the state’s minimum hourly wage, which is currently $13.80 and increases each year to keep pace with inflation.

“This change would begin to bring overtime protections back to where they’re supposed to be,” Tipping (who founded Beacon but is no longer editorially involved) told members of the legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee, which he chairs, in a public hearing on Tuesday.

“Overtime pay used to be a reliable way to ensure that the majority of middle- and working-class Americans could either make it home in time to see their families or be compensated fairly by their employer for working beyond the 40-hour standard workweek,” he said.

By raising the salary threshold, the bill attempts to address the abuse of a “duties” exemption in existing state and federal overtime law, whereby workers with “white collar” or “professional” job titles do not qualify.

“The truth is, this provision is widely abused,” Tipping explained. “A recent study by the University of Texas and Harvard Business School found that companies widely misused this provision to deny workers their overtime. A front desk clerk becomes a ‘Director of First Impressions.’ A barber becomes a ‘Grooming Manager.’ Those are actual titles from that study.”

James Myall, a policy analyst with the Maine Center for Economic Policy, told lawmakers that the group estimates that about 26,000 additional salaried workers in the for-profit sector would be eligible for overtime under this bill when fully phased in. While not everyone who is eligible would work extra hours, Myall estimates that about 8,600 people would receive additional pay every year, amounting to about $8.4 million in additional wages.

“This bill is about ensuring that Mainers deserve to get paid fairly for the work they do, and when they go above and beyond expectations, they should be paid accordingly,” Myall said at the public hearing.

The overtime threshold at the federal and state level has sat untouched for years and previous attempts to raise it in the legislature have failed.

Since the 1970s, the beginning of an era marked by an ever widening gulf between workers’ pay and their productivity, the number of “white collar” workers who automatically qualify for overtime pay has steadily fallen, plummeting from 66% of salaried workers then to just 13% in Maine currently.

In 2019, the Department of Labor under former President Donald Trump set the threshold for overtime pay to salaries less than $35,568 a year.

It was a dramatic step backwards from the salary threshold of $47,475 proposed by former President Barack Obama in 2016. But Obama’s proposal was ruled invalid by a Texas federal district court just before it was scheduled to go into effect. Rather than defend Obama’s overtime threshold in court, Trump’s Labor Department proposed their own weaker substitute.

If passed, Maine would join five other states that already have higher requirements than the federal threshold. Previous attempts to raise the state’s overtime threshold have been opposed by Maine’s business lobbies as well as the University of Maine System

In 2019, an overtime bill submitted by Tipping’s brother, former Rep. Ryan Tipping of Orono, would have locked in Obama’s proposed threshold at the state level. That bill died in the Democratic-controlled Labor and Housing Committee in 2020. 

Another bill was introduced in 2021 by Portland Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, who has since become the Speaker of the House. But her bill was watered down and turned into a measure to educate businesses and nonprofits on the state’s overtime laws.

The same business groups have again aligned against LD 513. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce and Hospitality Maine, which represents the restaurant industry, testified against Tipping’s bill at the public hearing on Tuesday. 

Tipping said that Maine lawmakers need to act to restore overtime protections for Maine workers, as he is not optimistic that the threshold will be raised at the federal level anytime soon.

“Four years ago, [Ryan Tipping’s bill] was carried over [between legislative sessions] and eventually was not passed. I understand that there was hope at that point that the federal government would act,” he said. “Two years ago, a bill was again introduced by now Speaker of the House Rachel Talbott Ross. It was again worked, carried over, delayed and eventually amended. Again, there was a hope that the federal government would act.”

Tipping continued, “All this time, Mainers have continued to work overtime and have not been paid for it. It’s time to fix that now.”

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

Maine could crack down on employer intimidation during union drives / by Dan Neumann

A supporter holds a sign protesting the closure of the Augusta Chipotle in 2022 after workers attempted to unionize. | Courtesy of the Maine Service Employees Association

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on April 24, 2023

A Maine lawmaker has submitted legislation that would ban employers from retaliating against employees who refuse to attend anti-union meetings. 

If successful, Maine would become just the third state, following Oregon and Connecticut, to crack down on “captive audience” meetings during union drives. 

The tactic has been routine for decades. In the lead up to a union election, workers are often made to attend meetings during which paid legal consultants present them with anti-union messaging in the hopes of eroding possible support.

“Employers routinely break the law and also routinely, legally, intimidate and harass and scare workers out of being able to truly exercise what should be a right,” said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “We’ve seen a huge uptick in organizing at the same time we’ve seen employers time after time pull workers into mandatory meetings on company time and force them to listen to manipulative, dishonest information.”

Captive audience meetings have been a fixture of the largest worker-led organizing efforts in Maine in recent years. Nurses at Maine’s largest hospital, Maine Medical Center in Portland, successfully overcame a union-avoidance campaign that featured mandatory meetings led by Reliant Labor Consultants, a firm with a nationwide portfolio of businesses they have coached to fight off unions. The nurses ultimately won their union election in 2021 by a large majority.

But other workers in Maine have not been as successful in countering the tactic. Staff at Bates College and Shalom House, a Portland nonprofit that serves people experiencing mental health challenges and homelessness, recently failed to form unions after facing strong opposition from their bosses.

LD 1756, “An Act to Protect Employee Freedom of Speech,” sponsored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry (D-Cumberland), would prohibit an employer from “discharging, disciplining or otherwise penalizing or threatening to discharge” a worker who declines to receive a communication or attend a meeting about religious or political matters. The bill provides an exemption for religious employers.

The bill doesn’t ban captive audience meetings, but companies would be prohibited from penalizing workers for not attending, as such meetings contain “political” content.

“This is fundamentally a worker First Amendment bill,” Schlobohm explained. “The First Amendment grants the freedom of speech without fear of being censored or persecuted. This bill applies that standard to the workplace and allows workers to refuse to listen to employers’ coercive speech on religious or political matters.”

The nation’s largest business lobby, the Chamber of Commerce, has sued Oregon and Connecticut, arguing that their laws infringe on the ability of companies to freely communicate with employees. The chamber also says the state laws are preempted by federal law allowing them to lobby against unions so long as that “expression contains no threat of reprisal or force or promise of benefit.”

But labor advocates hope that the tide may be turning at the federal level. Last year, National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo issued a memo asking the board to find captive audience meetings a violation of the National Labor Relations Act. 

The potential shift at the NLRB, the federal agency that oversees union elections, comes after the PRO Act stalled in Congress. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act would create a sweeping package of rights for workers, including barring employer interference in union elections. The PRO Act passed in the previous Democratic-led House but has not moved in the Senate, where Maine’s independent Sen. Angus King has signed on as a supporter.

Employees who have been on the losing side of that interference say that the state of Maine must intervene to protect workers’ right to organize.

“It should be a safe environment but it wasn’t,” said Darlene Zupancic, a communications and employment coordinator at Bates College in Lewiston.

Last month, the NLRB’s Boston office announced that an attempt to form a wall-to-wall union at Bates for staff and adjunct faculty didn’t have enough votes. The ballots were impounded for more than a year after the college’s administration challenged the makeup of the bargaining unit.

As Beacon previously reported, Bates hired anti-union consultants to host numerous meetings with staff. While the meetings weren’t mandatory, Zupancic feels they played a significant role in undermining the union effort. The consultants focused their messaging towards the dining and facilities staff, she said, spending less effort trying to convince faculty and professional staff.

“Instead of just giving really concrete unbiased information, it was definitely information to sway people,” Zupancic said of the meetings she attended. “That piece I didn’t appreciate, especially for one of the top-ranked liberal arts colleges in the world. The last thing we should be doing is using bully tactics to educate.”

Tim Stokes, a full-time residential support worker at Shalom House, felt under extreme pressure during that nonprofit’s recent unsuccessful union drive. 

“The tension in the workplace was just exhausting,” he said. “I think that right now, we’re all still just kind of recovering from that feeling.”

Late last month, staff at Shalom House withdrew their petition for a union election after facing opposition from their bosses. Management sent emails, hung posters and had supervisors call their direct reports urging them to vote against the union. They also held two mandatory meetings, one of which was led by Rick Finberg, a union-avoidance expert from the Bennett Law Firm based in Portland and Boston.

Stokes said he intends to testify at the Maine State House in favor of Daughtry’s bill. He also said he has come to see that the overarching goal of a captive audience meeting, more than the content that is presented, is to make it clear that the people who sign the workers’ paychecks are against them having a union. That intimidation is difficult to organize against.

“The whole point of unionization is that it’s a choice. It’s just an unethical thing to have someone who’s in a position of power over you tell you what they want you to do,” he said. “Because the choice to form a union isn’t supposed to be about what management wants.”

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

Adjuncts hold rally urging Maine Community College System to pay part-time faculty a fair wage / by Evan Popp

Christine Livia, a student at the Maine Community College System, speaks in support of the system’s adjunct faculty union at a rally Thursday | photo credit: Beacon

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on April 21, 2023

Close to 50 people rallied in South Portland on Thursday to call on the Maine Community College System to agree to a new contract with adjunct faculty members that pays them a fair wage. 

The rally, held at the campus of Southern Maine Community College — one of seven higher education institutions within the system — comes as the adjunct faculty union has been negotiating for a new contract since January, when the previous agreement expired. The adjunct union is a chapter of the Maine Service Employees Association (MSEA), SEIU Local 1989.  

“The Maine Community College System relies on us, they need us, and they can’t function without us. And we deserve the respect that comes from that,” Katrina Ray-Saulis, an adjunct professor within the system and the chapter president of the union, said at Thursday’s event. 

(Disclosure: Ray-Saulis is a contributor to Beacon). 

The battle over how college’s should treat adjuncts — who are typically part-time, non-tenure track professors that work for less money and don’t have the job security year-to-year associated with tenure-track professors — is playing out around the country. Nationwide, colleges and universities have increasingly filled faculty positions with adjuncts as a cost-cutting measure. Fifty years ago, about 80% of teaching positions were tenure-track. But that proportion has flipped on its head, as advocates now estimate that 75% of college teaching positions around the country are filled with adjunct instructors and that adjuncts teach over half of university courses. 

The situation at the Maine Community College System (MCCS) is similar. Noel Gallagher, director of communications and public affairs for MCCS, said there are 572 adjuncts teaching in the system during the spring semester and 358 full-time faculty members. Gallagher added that under their respective contracts, full-time faculty are required to teach a minimum of 15 credit hours a semester — and have additional responsibilities at the college — while adjuncts can teach a maximum of 12 credit hours per semester. However, most adjuncts at MCCS (87%) end up teaching less than the 12-credit-hour maximum allowed in their contract, the university system said. 

As contract negotiations between adjuncts and MCCS continue, the main sticking point appears to be compensation. Ray-Saulis said under the terms of their last union contract, adjuncts across the system are paid $930 per credit hour. That means if they teach a one credit course, $930 is all they would make for a 15-week class. If the course was worth three credits, they would be paid $2,790 for those 15 weeks, Ray-Saulis said. 

Given the amount of work that goes into teaching, she said that’s not a lot of money.  

“You have all this time [spent] communicating with students, corresponding with students outside of class time, grading, updating your courses … all that falls under that same $930 a credit hour. And when you break it down, it’s basically minimum wage for a lot of people,” she said.

Supporters of the adjunct faculty union at a rally Thursday | Beacon

MCCS students who attended Thursday’s rally agreed. Christine Livia, who studies at Central Maine Community College in Auburn, said attending school there has been an empowering experience. That’s why it’s all the more disappointing that many professors aren’t being paid adequately and don’t have long-term job security, she said.

“Frankly, as a student, I think it’s really unfair that the people who are working really hard to ensure I have an awesome education aren’t making a living wage,” Livia said, noting that one professor told her that he works multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

“To the community college system management: Respect your workers, give them a living wage and long-term job security and allow them to thrive in the same way that they want to see their students thrive,” Livia added. 

In the current contract negotiations, Ray-Saulis said some progress has been made with MCCS management around updating the system’s anti-discrimination policy and creating additional professional development opportunities for adjuncts.

However, she said the response to requests for increased pay has been disappointing. 

“They’ve moved very little on compensation,” she said of MCCS management. 

In a statement, David Daigler, president of MCCS, agreed that the key sticking point in negotiations is wages. Daigler said the institution has offered adjuncts a wage increase of 4.5% in each year of a proposed two-year contract. Given the current rate of $930 a credit hour, that would amount to a raise of a little over $80 to the credit hour rate over the course of that agreement. Daigler said that would add to action taken in the last round of contract negotiations that provided uniform pay rates for adjuncts in different colleges within MCCS and increased wages for adjuncts between 15% and 82%, depending on the particular campus they taught at. 

“We highly value the adjunct faculty at our colleges,” Daigler said. “They are a critical part of the excellent instruction at Maine’s community colleges and we deeply appreciate their work.”

Daigler added that “adjunct faculty who wish to teach more classes and be paid the same as full-time faculty can apply for full-time faculty positions.” He said 41% of full-time faculty hired at MCCS since 2018 were previously adjuncts within the institution. 

However, Ray-Saulis said given the amount of time and energy adjuncts spend on teaching — along with the student loans many have — she believes they should be paid around $1,800 a credit hour. Still, she acknowledged that it’s unlikely MCCS will agree to that figure this time around and said the union has pitched raising pay to $1,200 a credit hour for adjunct faculty — more than what MCCS has offered thus far. 

Adjuncts are also looking for increased respect, and in particular respect for those who are long-time instructors at MCCS, she added. Ray-Saulis said she’s been teaching at the institution for five years but makes the same amount as adjuncts who have been teaching there for over 20 years. The new contract should allow those who have been at the institution longer to receive additional compensation, she argued. 

At the end of Thursday’s rally, Timothy McGuire, a field representative for MSEA, urged attendees to sign a letter of “community support” for adjuncts that would be delivered to Daigler and to take additional steps to increase visibility of the union’s campaign. 

“Post to social media and spread the message that adjuncts deserve a living wage,” he said. 

Overall, Ray-Saulis said Thursday’s rally was an important step in making MCCS management aware that adjuncts “know what we are worth.” 

“Adjuncts are smart, we are educated, and we have years of teaching expertise,” she said. “We have hands-on experience that directly benefits our students and that we bring directly into the classroom and we deserve to have that seen.”

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

‘We’re responsible for the history we make:’ Lawmakers push for migrant labor rights / by Dan Neumann

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