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Legislative Committee Takes Up Bill That Would Let Farm Workers Unionize

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press file
In this Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, photo, a worker rakes wild blueberries at a farm in Union, Maine.

Agricultural workers in Maine would be allowed to form a union to bargain for wages, benefits and working conditions under a bill before the Legislature’s Labor Committee. But it drew opposition from several Maine farmers who say it could put them out of business.

Historically, agriculture workers in Maine, and in most of the country, have not been allowed to unionize. But Gardiner Democrat Rep. Thom Hartnett is sponsoring legislation that would change that.

“Farm workers who travel thousands of miles from their homes to feed us deserve nothing less than the legal protections afforded to all other working people,” he said.

The bill has support from groups, including the Maine AFL-CIO.

“It remains an important aspect of labor law that is connected to systemic racism and access to workplace protection. It is our shared collective inheritance and together, we have the responsibility to right past wrongs,” said Adam Goode with the Maine AFL-CIO.

But the proposal drew strong opposition from farmers who say workers are mostly part time and often harvest crops for a few weeks or months and then move on to crops in other states.

Farmers argued that bargaining rights would give workers the power to stop harvesting and force farmers to give in to their demands or loose the crop.

“And they say, 'Look, this farmer can’t afford to have us slow down or stop the harvest. We can bargain and make twice as much money and we are never going to come back to this farm again, so we don’t care if it puts them out of business,'” said Harry Ricker of Ricker Hill Farms in Turner.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.