By Rep. Paul Gilbert
March 12, 2012
As a member of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee I expected to hear bills about how to create jobs in Maine and how to improve Maine’s economic climate. Instead, Republicans brought forward a proposal that helps large corporations by eliminating the rights of workers’ in Maine.
Our elected officials need to focus on job creation and getting our economy back on track. Repealing workers’ collective bargaining rights will not create a single job or do a single thing to improve Maine’s economy or working conditions. As we face controversial proposals to rollback health and insurance protections for workers injured on the job or sent to the unemployment line, it’s critical that Augusta defends the Mainers working hard for a paycheck every week and doesn’t sell them out.
The bill that Republicans in the legislature support says that agricultural employees who work at the DeCoster Egg farms in Maine, or other factory farms, will no longer have the right to form a union. Working on a factory farm is a difficult, hard and dangerous job; and that’s without having an employer who breaks worker safety laws. The original law that allowed collective bargaining was passed 15 years ago after DeCoster was found guilty of violating numerous federal and state labor, immigration, safety and environmental laws and was fined $2 million dollars by the U.S. Department of Labor.
It’s true that workers have not unionized since the original law passed, but that doesn’t mean that we should take away their right to do so. Unfortunately DeCoster has not changed its ways and has been fined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration numerous times since 1997 for breaking worker safety laws.
DeCoster recently leased its Maine operations to Moark, and hopefully the new management will treat its workers fairly and follow the law. But new management isn’t a good reason to repeal workers’ rights. The law that we have in place should remain and in fact, it doesn’t apply to farms as we are accustomed to thinking of farms here in Maine. It only applies to industrial factory farms that produce eggs from more than half a million hens.
The DeCoster farm employs roughly 180 workers. More than half are employed as mechanics, equipment operators, inspectors, hand packers, cleaners, and office workers. Is this a family farm as we visualize a family farm? I don’t think so.
In recent debates on this bill, it has been stated that Maine and one county in California are the only jurisdictions which have collective bargaining rights for agricultural employees. That is just not true. According to a GAO report from 2002, nine states have collective bargaining rights for agricultural workers.
Instead of spending time focusing on how to expand the middle class and help workers, Republicans are focused on helping large corporations at the expense of hard working Mainers. In my community I hear from people who are worried about keeping their jobs, or are out of work, or young people who are thinking of leaving Maine because they can’t find entry level jobs that pay a livable wage. It’s an outrage that Republicans are more interested in increasing the profits of large corporations instead of working on these issues.
While our nation is starting to see signs of recovery, Maine’s unemployment rate has not budged in 2 straight months and Republican anti-worker proposals keep coming. In addition to LD 1207 that bans DeCoster workers from forming a union, LD 1571 would limit worker compensation to 11.8 years for workplace injuries resulting in permanent lifetime disabilities, LD 1725 promises negative changes for workers qualifying for unemployment benefits and LD 309 aims at weakening workers’ rights to work in a union workplace. It’s no wonder that Maine workers are feeling left behind. The middle class is the backbone of Maine and we must keep that backbone strong. Maine families should feel that lawmakers in Augusta have their back.