Divided panel advances amended DeCoster bill eliminating workers' right to unionize

AUGUSTA — In a close vote that saw one Republican scramble back to the fold, the Legislature's Labor Committee backed an amended bill Friday that would eliminate workers' right to unionize at the DeCoster-owned Quality Egg farm in Turner.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

A veterinarian and an entomologist conduct a tour of the egg-producing poultry barns for the media at Maine Contract Farming in Turner in July 2010.

One Republican, Rep. Frederick Wintle, R-Garland, earlier in the day had sided with Democrats in an initial 7-6 vote to oppose LD 1207.  Wintle said then that his decision to vote against the bill was simple: "I support collective bargaining."

He added, "I'm in favor of workers' rights whether it's union or nonunion. I represent the people.  ... I tend to think with an open mind and do what's right. And that's what I thought was right."

However, in a second committee vote later in the day, with one Democrat missing, Wintle sided with the six other Republicans and voted for the bill, which will now go to the full Legislature for a vote with a divided committee recommendation.

Wintle later said he changed his vote in order to make sure the bill got to the House floor for a vote, but that he intended to vote against the bill in the House.

Under normal circumstances, the bill would have moved on to the House and Senate regardless of Wintle's vote.

Several Republicans this session are supporting bills that could weaken organized labor. But opponents of LD 1207, sponsored by Lisbon Republican Rep. Dale Crafts, wonder how many lawmakers will be willing to stand alongside DeCoster, a company whose checkered track record of labor and public health violations triggered legislation in 1975 and 1997.

"If ever there was a facility that needed representation more than any other, it's this place," Matt Schlobohm of the Maine AFL-CIO said.

Crafts and GOP members on the panel argued that the problems at DeCoster had subsided and that the existing laws unfairly target the company.

"There’s been no violations in 10 years," Crafts said. "I would say that the operation has really improved its ability to operate, conditionwise and everything. That's why we don’t see as much accusations and complaints as we've seen in the past."

Crafts added, "Hey, I’m the first one if somebody violates we prosecute, but we don't need a special law."

The Legislature in 1997 gave DeCoster workers the right to unionize. That right is typically not afforded to agricultural workers because of the potential effects of a strike on perishable products.

At the time of the legislation, however, supporters argued that DeCoster was more factory than farm and that workers there should be afforded those same rights.

That reasoning also prompted the Legislature to require DeCoster to pay its workers overtime and a minimum wage in 1975.

Federal law doesn't allow agricultural workers to earn overtime.

Crafts' original version of LD 1207 would have repealed the overtime provision. That proposal riled labor and immigrant advocates during a heated public hearing held earlier this month.

Prior to Friday's work session, Crafts amended the bill to strike the overtime provision, saying DeCoster didn't intend to stop paying overtime anyway. 

"It's just the right thing to do," Crafts said.

It's not clear why the overtime repeal was included in the original bill. When asked, Crafts only said that the entire bill was designed to stop legislation targeting the company.

"The thing is, it really worries me that we can select a business and legislate laws just for one individual," he said. "I think it's absolutely unconstitutional, in my opinion."

He added, "It's a very scary path to go down. In America we're supposed to be free."

Some lawmakers have argued that the collective bargaining portion of the law that would allow workers to join a union wasn't necessary because workers at DeCoster have never organized.

Schlobohm didn't buy that argument.

"If we follow that logic, someone who hasn't protested in 10 years would lose their free speech rights," he said. "Someone who hasn’t carried a gun in five years would lose their Second Amendment rights."

Workers at DeCoster failed to unionize in 1997.

Schlobohm said there were a lot of reasons why workers didn't succeed.

"It's an incredibly intimidating work environment," he said. "The employees there feel very vulnerable to start with. They're coming from incredibly long distances. There's a climate of fear there. And, you know, there were large amounts of intimidation during the campaign in 1997."

During the public hearing earlier this month several former DeCoster workers said that atmosphere still exists.

Although DeCoster brought one employee to testify on its behalf, he later told the Labor Committee that he didn't know the proposed bill could take away his right to earn overtime.

Francisco Gonzalez, a Lewiston resident and supervisor at DeCoster, told the panel he worked between 70 and 80 hours a week.

"I'm confused now," Gonzalez said then. "I did not know what this was about."

smistler@sunjournal.com

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Comments

ANTHONY NAZAR's picture

Yet another reason

To never again vote for any Republican at any level.

And, I'll bet these people attend church twice a week, sing hymns and drop their tithe into the offering plate thinking that makes them followers of the philosophy of Jesus.

Stay home and study the Beatitudes rather than just sitting in a pew smiling and nodding mindlessly at the sermon as you check your watch next tomorrow.

 's picture

Wrong

All Americans should have the right to unionize if the majority so desires. It is wrong when governments try to dictate to the people. And, in my opinion, all companies should have follow the federal regulations with regard to overtime and such.

 's picture

Mainers don't care.

For the most part this change will fly well under the radar. The vast majority of Mainers won't give a darn. Why? Because the people working at this plant don't look like us, and many don't speak the same language. Not passing judgement, just making an observation. What will happen though when the legislature comes for your pay, your benefits?
Every worker deserves the same protection under the law. The people in this factory are working 70 or 80 hours a week, and the initial question was whether they would be paid overtime or not? Now the state will make a law forbidding these workers from forming a union and going through collective bargaining.Of all people, these men and women need as much protection as we can give them! Laws on the federal level that allow for mistreatment of employees of large factories, just because it can be classified as agricultural, are wrong, plain and simple! Saying that individuals should be responsible for negotiating their own pay is not practical in many cases. If an employee of this "farm" decides he or she will fight for fair pay or benefits, out comes the axe, they are gone and the firm sends off for another latino. It's going to get ugly folks unless we stand up and demand a stop!

Jarrod Dumas's picture

True Colors Showing

And here it is: the long-awaited attack on the right to unionize. Scott Walker started with the teachers; Maine Republicans are apparently going to start with some of the most unfairly-treated, oft-abused workers in the State, at a plant that is the poster child for why labor laws were first written. I guess this is what the LePage Administration means when it says, "Open for Business."

 's picture

Elections are coming

It will be interesting to see if any Republicans win in the next election. My guess is that the people will look at the actions of the Republicans both locally and nationwide and vote them all out. It is sad that the radical right has given the party such a bad name in such a short amount of time. The current Republican party is not my cup of tea.

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

Republican math

Score 1 for the fatcats and 0 for the working guy. As for job creation, which creates more jobs ? One guy working 80 hours for less money or 2 guys working 40 hours for a living wage. As for savings to the taxpayer ? One guy working 80 hours and 1 guy on welfare or 2 guys working 40 hours? Effective public service? Giving payback to the fatcats who contribute to your campaign score 1, serving the citizens of your state with equal representation score 0.

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