AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci filed emergency legislation on Wednesday to repeal the state law that prompted Irving Woodlands LLC to halt operations on more than 1 million acres in northern Maine.
For the past week, Maine lawmakers and officials from the New Brunswick-based company have squared off over a 2004 law that allows logging contractors working for Irving to enter into collective bargaining.
Claiming the law unfairly singles out Irving, the company shut down operations just as the logging season was beginning. Lawmakers responded angrily at first and accused the company of using the job cuts as a way to browbeat the state into caving.
Although several dozen Irving employees were kept on the job, the halt had the potential to affect more than 300 jobs in areas of Maine where alternative employment opportunities are limited.
The emergency bill submitted Wednesday would repeal the collective bargaining provision while committing the Maine Department of Labor to enforce laws already on the books regarding companies’ use of foreign workers in the Maine woods. The bill would also triple the fine for violations of the laws regarding foreign work-ers and equipment.
“Getting people back to work has to be our top priority,” Baldacci said in a statement. “While concerns about the wages and the concentration of land ownership in northern Maine remain, the current law is actually preventing people from working. That’s not acceptable.”
An Irving spokeswoman said the company appreciates the efforts to address the situation.
Rep. John Martin, the Eagle Lake Democrat who was co-sponsor of the 2004 law, replied “not good” when asked how he felt about the repeal. But Martin said he and the other co-sponsor, Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson, a logger from Allagash, agreed to go along with the wishes of the group of northern Maine contractors who were polled about their preferences on the issue last weekend in Fort Kent.
“Roughly 84 percent of the contractors asked us to repeal the law so they can go back to work,” Martin said Wednesday afternoon. “I understand where they are coming from. They need to eat. They need to support their families.”
Deemed a measure to prevent large landowners from developing monopolies in Maine, the original version of the 2004 bill allowing collective bargaining would have encompassed several other major timberland owners, including Plum Creek Timber Co. The measure stemmed from past conflicts between Irving and contractors upset with the company’s business practices.
The bill was eventually written in a way that applied to only Irving, however, because the company owns, possesses or acquires economic control over more than 400,000 acres in a labor market area. But the law was suspended year after year at the strong urging of Irving representatives. When it finally took effect on June 1, the company responded with the work stoppages.
Martin and Jackson were initially resistant to Irving’s demands with Jackson even accusing the company of attempting to blackmail the state. But ultimately, the two said they agreed to draft a repeal bill because of the response from local woods workers.
Jackson estimated that 75 percent of the logging industry workers who contacted him just wanted to go back to work with the others urging the state to hold firm. He said he liked the other provisions of the bill, which promise to crack down on companies that use foreign workers out of compliance with existing state and federal laws. Still, Jackson said Wednesday he most likely will not vote for the repeal.
“I agreed to have it introduced and I signed it, but that doesn’t mean I have to vote for it,” Jackson said.
Irving spokeswoman Mary Keith gave a brief statement noting that the Legislature adjourned Wednesday without taking up the repeal measure.
“We appreciate the consideration that is being given to leveling the playing field with one law for all Maine landowners,” Keith said. “We respect the process that is currently under way.”
Keith wrote in an e-mail that 10 to 12 people have already been called back to work in recent days and that 25 who were laid off last week were working this week. The company anticipates employing more than 100 people by next week if the governor’s bill is successful and being at “full capacity based on market demand” the following week, Keith wrote.
Patrick Strauch of the Maine Forest Products Council, which counts Irving as a member, said his organization had been watching the situation from the sidelines. But he said all loggers and timber companies are struggling due in large part to the construction slump brought on by the recession.
“Right now, the situation in the woods is pretty tough,” Strauch said. “A lot of contractors are trying to figure out how to keep people working.”
Sen. Roger Sherman, a Houlton Republican whose district includes some Irving land, described Irving as a good company that provides people with good jobs. Most of the constituents he heard from just wanted the law fixed.
“They basically want to go back to work,” Sherman said.
State House leaders serving on the Legislative Council must approve any bills introduced so late in the session. If approved, lawmakers will have to work quickly to pass the measure amid debate over several other contentious issues — including highway funding, bonds and tax reform — if they want to achieve their goal of adjourning by Friday.