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House sustains veto of bill to allow Maine farm workers to unionize

Murray Carpenter
Maine Public file
Cows on a Pittsfield dairy farm in 2017.

The Maine House of Representatives has sustained Democratic Gov. Janet Mills' veto of a bill that would have allowed farm workers to unionize.

Eight Democrats voted with a united Republican minority to uphold the governor’s veto, killing a bill that would have allowed workers at farms with more than five employees to form a union and seek better pay and benefits.

The majority of Democrats viewed the proposal as granting farmworkers the same protections and collective bargaining rights as workers in other industries.

Some cited a litany of injury and safety violations at the former Decoster Egg Farm in Turner as a reason to support the bill.

But opponents, including Mills and some Democrats, argued that the bill would have imposed a hardship on Maine's small farmers, who already work on narrow profit margins and are not the corporate giants often accused of unsafe or exploitive working conditions.

"It makes the current problems even worse," said Republican Rep. Randall Hall, a dairy farmer from Wilton who spoke during the House debate. "It will drive even more farms out of business, increase unemployment, and make basic food items unaffordable for families who are already struggling to put food on the table and heat their homes."

Union organizations lamented the governor's veto, saying that farm workers are among the most exploited in the country.

Had it become law, Maine would have joined a handful of states that allow farm workers to unionize.

Unionized workers in the industry have steeply declined since the 1970s, when more than 70,000 workers were part of the United Farm Workers union. Today they number roughly 8,000.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.