AUGUSTA — The Maine House of Representatives on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would take away workers' right to unionize at a Turner-based egg farm and its subsidiaries.
On a straight party-line vote, Republicans voted 73-69 to eliminate workers' collective bargaining rights at farm operations formerly owned by Jack DeCoster. DeCoster's checkered history of workplace violations had drawn controversy to LD 1207, a bill introduced last year.
Since then, Moark LLC, a subsidiary of Land O'Lakes, has signed a 10-year lease/purchase of the operation. Moark's operational and potential ownership takeover has prompted supporters of the bill to argue that the law passed in 1997 by the Legislature is no longer necessary.
Federal law prohibits agricultural workers from unionizing. However, widespread abuses at the Turner facility prompted the Legislature to pass a law that allowed workers there to organize.
Proponents of the law argued that the facility was more of a factory than a farm, and thus, workers should be afforded the same rights. A similar argument was used to create an exemption for an industrial farm facility in California.
Workers in Turner attempted to unionize after the law was passed, but the effort failed.
On Tuesday, lawmakers who supported the law's repeal said it unfairly targets one business. Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, also said Jack DeCoster has every intention of selling the business to Moark.
"The present owner is never coming back," said Timberlake, adding that Moark deserved a fresh start and that the company had plans to expand.
Timberlake also rejected Democrats' claims that the facility wasn't a farm.
"In the rest of the United States, this would be called a farm," he said.
During the floor debate Tuesday morning, Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, discussed last year's emotional public hearing for LD 1207. At the time, three individuals from DeCoster-owned Quality Egg of New England LLC, Dorothy Egg Farm LLC and Mountain Hollow Farms LLC supported the bill.
One of them, Francisco Gonzalez, a manager, said he worked between 80 and 90 hours a week at the facility. Gonzalez later told the panel he didn't know that the bill would have repealed overtime pay for workers.
The overtime provision was taken out of the bill. The legislation that was given initial approval by the House today only repeals workers' right to organize.
"Is it the company’s intention to start its relationship with the state by revoking workers' rights?" said Rep. Rob Hunt, D-Buxton, who serves on the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Development Committee. "Let’s not hope they treat workers fairly, let’s make sure they do. As my father always told me, 'Trust in God, but lock your car.'"
The majority of the Labor Committee voted against the bill. Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, voted with Democrats to oppose it.
Rector recently told the Sun Journal he planned to vote against the bill when it arrives in the Senate. Rector's opposition to the proposal last year was one of the reasons it stalled.
Rector said he hopes the Land O'Lakes deal will foster changes at the facilities. He said a significant cultural change must occur at the facilities before he could support LD 1207.
"Since this issue has come up, I've received numerous calls and emails from people telling just horrific stories at that facility," Rector said. "These accounts are from people that I trust."
He added, "There needs to be a lot of changes that take place there. I'm confident and hopeful that it will happen, but we should give (Land O'Lakes) some time to make those changes."
Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon Falls, is the lead sponsor of LD 1207.
The bill was opposed by unions and worker advocates. Matt Schlobohm, of the AFL-CIO, said workers at the facility "do low-paying, difficult, dangerous and dirty work" and should have the right to form a union to better themselves if they so choose.
"Taking rights away from workers does nothing to improve our economy," Schlobohm said. "We are glad that Moark has come to the state of Maine. We would ask them to follow our laws and our values and not seek to repeal workers' fundamental right to organize."
DeCoster in November turned over the operations to Moark. Jeanne Forbis, a spokeswoman for Moark, said Tuesday that the senior managers were dismissed when Moark inked the deal with DeCoster. Forbis could not say how many managers were let go.
The Land O'Lakes subsidiary will be the sole operator of egg production, processing and warehousing operations at the farms.
Moark will have the option of buying the facilities after 10 years. Lease or sale prices and other financial details have not been released.
Moark is a major marketer, distributor, processor and producer of fresh-shell eggs and egg products. The company was formed as a joint project of Land O'Lakes and a Midwestern feed company in 2000. Land O'Lakes acquired 100 percent ownership of Moark in 2006.
Moark operates egg farms in California, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Ohio and Massachusetts.