‘DeCoster’ bill returns; Senate passage uncertain

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AUGUSTA — Lawmakers in the House of Representatives could soon take up a bill that would take away workers’ right to unionize at a Turner-based egg farm and its subsidiaries. 

Republicans in the House appear poised to green-light the bill, which was carried over last year after several postponements and heated debate. But the bill, LD 1207, faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where a key Republican says his opposition to the bill has not changed. 

The bill is surrounded by controversy because it centers on the farm operations formerly owned by Jack DeCoster. They include Quality Egg of New England LLC, Dorothy Egg Farm LLC and Mountain Hollow Farms LLC. The facilities have garnered national media attention for what the U.S. Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration once described as “serious” and “willful” workplace and safety violations.  

DeCoster in November turned over the operations to a subsidiary of Land O’Lakes, leading some lawmakers to argue that the operation should no longer be exempted from a federal law that prohibits agricultural workers from unionizing. The Legislature in 1997 passed a law that allowed workers at the farms to organize, following reports of workplace violations.

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The sponsor of LD 1207, Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon Falls, said the law unfairly targets one business. Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, said Land O’Lakes has made significant effort to change the culture that farm. 

However, Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, said he still plans to oppose the bill. Rector’s opposition to the proposal last year was one of the reasons the proposal stalled.

Rector said Tuesday that he hopes the Land O’Lakes deal will foster changes at the facilities. However, he said, some of the management at the farm that oversaw the questionable practices was still in place. Rector 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 of 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.”

The Land O’Lakes subsidiary, Moark, 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.

smistler@sunjournal.com 

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