Patrick Whittle
Patrick Whittle is based in Maine and covers environment.
pxwhittlepwhittle@ap.org

Maine governor vetoes bill to allow farm workers to unionize

January 8, 2022 GMT

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine’s Democratic governor has vetoed a bill that would have given farm workers in the state the right to unionize, citing the possibility of heaping new costs on an already struggling agriculture sector.

The Maine Legislature passed the proposal, which called for people working in agriculture to be able to organize for the purposes of collectively bargaining for wages, hours, working conditions and benefits.

But Gov. Janet Mills vetoed the proposal Friday with a message that said she could not “subject our farmers to a complicated new set of laws that would require them to hire lawyers just to understand.”

Maine is the country’s sole producer of wild blueberries, as well as a major producer of potatoes and maple syrup. The largely rural state also has a significant dairy industry and small and midsize farms dedicated to livestock and specialty crops.

ADVERTISEMENT

Those farms are already struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, droughts and worker shortages, Mills said. And new costs associated with the union would likely be passed on to consumers, she said.

“While this bill is well intended, I fear its unintended consequence would discourage the growth of farms in Maine,” Mills wrote in her veto message.

The Maine AFL-CIO said the bill would protect farm workers from abuses such as wage theft and sexual harassment. The federation’s executive director said the group was “greatly dismayed” that Mills vetoed the bill.

“Farmworkers provide the most essential service to our communities by growing, picking and processing the food we eat every day. They perform back breaking labor and are among the most exploited workers in our nation,” said Matt Schlobohm, the executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO.

The unionization bill received pushback from some members of the state’s agricultural industry when it was up for debate in the Maine Legislature. Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association argued that it would make farming in Maine more difficult.

Mills was right to veto the bill, the Maine Potato Board said Friday.

“Legislation that would restrict the ability to plant, care for and harvest our crops would risk the livelihood of Maine farmers and those employees that rely on the jobs Maine farms provide,” the board said in a statement.