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Maine’s Governor Is Standing in the Way of Labor Rights for Farmworkers
The exclusion of farmworkers from laws guaranteeing workers' rights has an ugly, racist past. Why are some ostensibly pro-labor politicians continuing it?
By Paul Blest, More Perfect Union
For the second time in 18 months, Maine farmworkers were tantalizingly close to winning hard-fought labor protections — until Gov. Janet Mills stepped in and once again killed them.
The Maine legislature passed a bill last month that would have finally entitled them to the state minimum wage of $13.80 by repealing long-standing, discriminatory laws classifying them as a special class of employees. The bill, sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, would have also entitled workers in one of the most grueling industries in America to time-and-a-half in overtime, the standard for hourly wage earners.
But Mills, the Democratic governor who was re-elected to a second term last fall, vetoed the legislation on July 19. While Mills claimed to “strongly support a minimum wage for farm workers,” she described the legislation as “confusing” and cited the “concerns” of the “agricultural community” as reason for her veto.
Part of that confusion, Mills said, stemmed from a provision added that would have protected concerted activity for farmworkers, a step towards union rights for farmworkers. But by the time the bill actually passed, the provision was stripped out — and Rep. Amy Roeder told More Perfect Union that this was done at the governor’s request.
"As to why the governor vetoed it, I don't know,” Roeder told More Perfect Union Monday. “We did pretty much everything she asked us to do to modify the bill thoughtfully, and still keep some important protections in place. But she decided that even though we met all of our requirements, she was going to veto it anyway."
This is seemingly part of a pattern for Mills. In January 2022, she vetoed a bill that would grant unionization rights to Maine farmworkers, saying the proposal would “subject our farmers to a complicated new set of laws that would require them to hire lawyers just to understand,” and claiming Maine farmworkers do not need to “receive the protection of strong labor laws” because Maine farms are generally smaller and family-owned. (We produced a video on that fight at the time.)
As a result of Mills’ latest maneuver, farmworkers in Maine are still bound to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, though many Maine farmers have said they already pay above that. And instead of allowing the legislature to set the minimum wage, Mills said she would convene a “stakeholder group” that would come up with “a minimum wage” for farmworkers that Mills would then introduce in the next legislative session. Roeder told More Perfect Union that Mills’ language “threw up alarm bells” for her.
“I'm afraid we're talking about a sub-minimum wage, which is something we've tried to combat for years and which the Department of Labor is strongly, strongly against,” Roeder said.
Mills’ dual vetoes of legislation that would pay farmworkers fair wages and give them union rights are part of a “longstanding tradition” of farmworkers being excluded from legal protections by even ostensibly pro-labor politicians, according to United Farm Workers communications director Antonio De Loera-Brust.
When farmworkers were excluded from laws like the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, many U.S. farmworkers, particularly in the South, were Black Americans. During one debate over the FLSA, segregationist Democratic Rep. J. Mark Wilcox of Florida said that there had "always been a difference in the wage scale of white and [Black] labor," and that changing this would "just not work in the South. You cannot put the [Black man] and the white man on the same basis and get away with it."
"The decision to exclude farmworkers from New Deal labor law was one of those compromises that the New Deal made with Jim Crow,” De Loera-Brust said. “'Okay, we're gonna create the right for most American workers to unionize, but we're not going to extend those same rights to a workforce that then as now was predominantly people of color.’”
Though the New Deal coalition has long since collapsed, there have been several recent examples of Democrats continuing to support different labor standards for farmworkers. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has supported nation-leading efforts to grant protections to gig workers and fast food employees, vetoed a bill in 2021 that would have allowed farmworkers to vote by mail in union elections. (After saying he would veto the legislation again in 2022, Newsom reversed course after President Joe Biden came out in support of the legislation.)
And in North Carolina, Republicans in the legislature passed an annual farm bill in 2017 that banned growers from entering agreements collecting farm worker dues and prohibited the use of collective bargaining agreements as a term of legal settlements between workers and growers. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bill into law, prompting outrage from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) union that has organized thousands of North Carolina farmworkers. (A federal court blocked the CBA provision of the law in 2021, but an appeals court reversed the decision last year).
Roeder said that in the case of Mills, she suspects lobbyists from groups representing farming interests — namely the Maine Potato Board, the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, and the Maine Farm Bureau — played a part in persuading Mills to veto the bill.
It’s not all bad news. New York passed a farmworker bill in 2019 that granted unionization rights and other protections to farmworkers; since then, the UFW has unionized about 500 workers at five farms in New York state, and the UFCW and RWDSU have additionally organized around 125 New York farm workers, according to The Guardian.
"When you look at what's happened in New York, that's proof that when you change the laws, workers can win,” De Loera-Brust said. “So it's really disappointing, especially given the progress that has just happened in New York, that Maine would choose to maintain the racist, exclusionary past, rather than extend equal rights of labor law to farmworkers.”