The majority party and our governor have put Maine politics on the national media map. From national newspapers to cable talk shows, hostile rhetoric has dominated the headlines. And unfortunately none of the chatter is about the stuff that’s important to Maine people.
It is clear that as we recover from an economic downturn, the priority of our lawmakers should be to keep our eye on the ball and focus on what we can do to strengthen Maine’s economy by providing sustainable, well-paying jobs for Maine people. Instead of attacking Maine workers by name-calling and removing murals, we need to be supporting Maine workers.
The governor’s high-profile fights and insults are nothing more than distractions from the real work that needs to be done. My Democratic colleagues and I remain committed and focused on what needs to be done to get Maine back to work. We also are concerned that some of the proposals put forth by the Republicans jeopardize these goals.
Of particular concern is a bill that completely undoes protections for Maine loggers. Sen. Tom Saviello has proposed a bill (LD 1383) which makes it easier for Maine companies to hire foreign labor and deprive Maine people of much-needed jobs.
We are lucky to live in a state where our natural resources are vast. In northern Maine, we know as well as anyone that our woods are a part of the Maine brand — encouraging tourism and recreation. The Maine woods also represent a long-standing Maine industry. There is no shortage of work in the Maine woods. Jobs are aplenty. However, the hiring of Maine people to do Maine work is waning.
Tension in the logging industry is not new. In 2006, a trade accord was enacted to help level the playing field for Maine loggers. At issue was the economic disparity between the cost of lumber production in Canada and Maine. To understand the disadvantage, we have to look at the Canadian logging industry: Most Canadian forestlands are owned by the government, and in turn logs are sold at reduced prices. This subsidy allows Canadian loggers to purchase at a lower cost than Maine loggers who purchase from privately held forestlands. Each time imported Canadian lumber is sold at a lesser price, Maine workers lose out.
It is disingenuous and hypocritical for some Maine landowners and mills to bemoan the effects of foreign competition and then turn around and hire Canadian workers. If we want to bolster northern Maine’s economy, we need to stick together. We’ve heard much about the “buy local” movement and frankly we need to “hire local.” By hiring local workers, we put real dollars into our local economy that will go directly to our Main Streets and our small-business owners.
The original intent of the legislation I co-wrote, which is the current law, was to help manage the flow of foreign workers in Maine. We sought to provide guidance for companies and workers alike. The law does not prohibit the use of foreign workers, it simply sets reasonable guidelines. Much like how the 2006 trade accord sought to protect Maine companies from unfair competition, this law protects Maine workers from unfair competition.
Before this law, a foreign worker could bring his equipment into Maine to harvest. Now, because of the existing law, any employer hiring a bonded worker must show proof of ownership for the equipment used in logging operations.
Also, the existing law severely curtailed the practice of Canadians setting up shell corporations in Maine to bond themselves. The proposed bill dramatically loosens all of these standards.
Last year, we also prohibited the practice of Canadian workers collecting Maine unemployment benefits in the off season. If LD 1383 passes, taxpayer dollars will be spent giving Maine unemployment to foreign workers and once again our state employees will spend time processing unemployment claims for workers who live outside our country.
The bottom line is that I want to protect Maine workers. Take it from one who has made his living working in the Maine woods for more than 20 years, the practical effect of this legislation would mean fewer opportunities for Maine workers. Gov. LePage may have put up an “Open for Business” sign at Maine’s southern border but to the north the sign should read, “We prefer foreign workers.”
Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, represents District 35 in the Maine Senate. He is the Democratic leader on the Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development Committee and a logger.