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Maine’s Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is under fire after vetoing a bill that would have allowed farmworkers in the state to unionize.
The Maine Legislature passed a bill to give workers in agricultural industries the right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. But in a move that labor reporter Kim Kelly called “an absolute disgrace,” Mills on Friday single-handedly prevented the proposal from becoming law.
“With ‘friends’ like these,” Kelly said of Maine’s Democratic governor, “the working class in this country barely needs enemies.”
As journalist Daniel Nichanian pointed out, Mills is one of two Democratic governors to recently kill legislation that would have enabled or made it easier for farmworkers to join a union. Last September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed Assembly Bill 616—a huge disappointment to the United Farm Workers, which had just helped him defeat a right-wing recall effort.
In her veto message, Mills said she could not “subject our farmers to a complicated new set of laws that would require them to hire lawyers just to understand.”
Mills’ statement, said Kelly, is “absolutely dripping with condescension.”
In addition to implying that farmworkers are incapable of understanding the benefits of union-friendly labor laws, Mills also suggested that increased labor costs would hurt Maine’s agricultural sector as well as consumers. Farms are already struggling to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, droughts, and worker shortages, Mills said, failing to acknowledge that improved pay might attract more employees.
“While this bill is well intended,” Mills wrote, “I fear its unintended consequence would discourage the growth of farms in Maine.”
According to the Associated Press, “Maine is the country’s sole producer of wild blueberries, as well as a major producer of potatoes and maple syrup. The largely rural state also has a significant dairy industry and small and midsize farms dedicated to livestock and specialty crops.”
The Portland Press Herald reported:
Mills said she is a “committed supporter of collective bargaining rights for workers generally,” but that Maine farms are primarily small, family-run operations and workers don’t need the same protections they would in areas where agriculture is dominated by factory farms owned by large corporate interests.
Maine farms that hire seasonal temporary workers already have to follow strict federal regulations, she said.
The Maine AFL-CIO, however, stressed that the bill would have empowered farmworkers to push back against abuses including sexual harassment and wage theft—a rampant problem nationwide, especially in industries where a large proportion of workers are vulnerable immigrants.
“We are greatly dismayed that Gov. Mills vetoed legislation to grant farmworkers the fundamental human right to join together and form unions for fair treatment and a better life,” Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said in a statement.
“Farmworkers provide the most essential service to our communities by growing, picking, and processing the food we eat every day,” he added. “They perform back-breaking labor and are among the most exploited workers in our nation.”
While the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 guarantees the majority of private-sector workers in the U.S. the right to form unions and collectively bargain without fear of termination, agricultural and domestic workers, independent contractors, and public-sector employees have been excluded from basic protections afforded by federal labor law.
As historian Touré F. Reed has shown, agrarian proprietors lobbied to deprive millions of—disproportionately but not exclusively Black—farmworkers of benefits provided by the New Deal not only because “most southern farm owners in the 1930s were racist,” but also in an effort “to keep their labor costs down and retain control over the operation of their farms.”
According to the Maine Beacon, “Aside from a period of time from 1997 to 2012 when DeCoster Egg Farm workers in Maine could unionize, agricultural employees in the state haven’t had the right to collectively bargain without retaliation.”
Workers of color are overrepresented in Maine’s agricultural and food processing industries. The recently passed bill that Mills vetoed, said Schlobohm, “would have advanced racial justice and corrected a longstanding injustice.”