AUGUSTA — The sponsor of a bill that would remove workers’ right to unionize at the Jack DeCoster-owned Quality Egg Farm in Turner told the House of Representatives on Thursday morning that the company was in sale negotiations with a subsidiary of Land O'Lakes Inc.
But the extent of those talks is unclear, as is whether the sudden disclosure of a deal influenced Thursday's preliminary House vote to repeal workers' 14-year-old right to organize.
Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon Falls, who spoke prior to the 74-68 vote along party lines, said after the decision that the Maine law was a sticking point in sale negotiations, a point proponents of the bill made during the GOP caucus Thursday morning.
Crafts acknowledged afterward that he hoped telling lawmakers about the sale would change the minds of those uncomfortable with backing legislation that benefits DeCoster, a company nationally known for its checkered history of workplace and labor violations.
"I thought it would help ... the people who don't like DeCoster," Crafts said. "They'd say, 'OK, (Jack DeCoster's) going to go away. I thought it may help with the opposition who say, 'Hey, we don't like the guy. This is my opportunity to be part of getting him.'"
A representative from Land O'Lakes would neither confirm nor deny that the two sides were in talks.
"Land O'Lakes does not comment on rumors or speculation in the marketplace," wrote spokeswoman Jeanne Forbis in an e-mail. "Additionally, we have no involvement with legislation being considered in Maine relating to unionization of agricultural workers."
Chris Grimbalis, a representative from Quality Egg said Thursday that the negotiations were preliminary. However, he indicated that Land O'Lakes had concerns about Maine's law.
"There is an interest, but there's nothing in writing on the table," Grimbalis told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. "There are several concerns that they have, and LD 1207 is one of 'em."
Grimbalis added, "This is not the first offer that (Jack DeCoster) has had. This is not going to be the last offer that he's gonna have. If (Land O'Lakes) were to make an offer, it wouldn't be the first offer that he's had and if nothing comes of it, it won't be the last offer that he has, OK?"
Crafts denied that he submitted the legislation on behalf of DeCoster. He said the company told him about the Land O'Lakes negotiations three days ago, although he acknowledged that he'd heard rumors about it before that.
"They told me I could go public with it because it was public information," he said.
Opponents of LD 1207 were skeptical of the timing.
Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, said that Maine had no evidence that sale negotiations were legitimate.
"Why should we trust DeCoster when we've been lied to for decades?" Tuttle asked from the House floor.
Documents from the U.S. Department of Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that the Turner facility committed “serious” and “willful” violations as recently as 2008 and other infractions as recently as 2009.
News of those violations prompted Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, to say that he was withdrawing his support for the bill. Rector is the co-chairman of the Labor Committee.
Crafts and Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, a co-sponsor of the bill said such violations were common at large facilities.
They also indicated during the floor debate that DeCoster would move out of Maine if LD 1207 failed and the sale fell through. Both said DeCoster pays about "10 percent" of the town's property taxes.
"(DeCoster) could walk away tomorrow," Timberlake told lawmakers. "It would be a devastation to our community."
Federal law prohibits most agricultural workers from unionizing. However, some states like Maine have adopted laws that permit collective bargaining at agricultural facilities that are more factory than farm.
Proponents of the 1997 bill that allowed workers at DeCoster to unionize said the workers at DeCoster should be afforded the same organizing rights as factory workers.
The Legislature passed the bill after the U.S. Department of Labor fined DeCoster $2 million for gross workplace violations.
Crafts and proponents of LD 1207 argue the law is punitive and unfairly targets one company.
DeCoster workers in Turner have attempted to organize once in 1997 but the effort failed.
Crafts bill now heads to the Senate.