Bill to end union rights at DeCoster moves ahead

Posted April 29, 2011, at 8:47 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In a close vote that saw one Republican leave — then return — to the fold, the Legislature’s Labor Committee backed an amended bill Friday that would eliminate workers’ right to unionize at the DeCoster-owned Quality Egg farm in Turner.

One Republican, Rep. Frederick Wintle, R-Garland, earlier in the day had sided with Democrats in an initial 7-6 vote to oppose LD 1207.  Wintle said then that his decision to vote against the bill was simple: “I support collective bargaining.”

He added, “I’m in favor of workers’ rights whether it’s union or nonunion. I represent the people.  . . .  I tend to think with an open mind and do what’s right. And that’s what I thought was right.”

However, in a second committee vote later in the day, with one Democrat missing, Wintle sided with the six other Republicans and voted for the bill, which will now go to the full Legislature for a vote with a divided committee recommendation.

Wintle later said he changed his vote in order to make sure the bill got to the House floor for a vote, but that he intended to vote against the bill in the House.

Under normal circumstances, the bill would have moved on to the House and Senate regardless of Wintle’s vote.

Several Republicans this session are supporting bills that could weaken organized labor. But opponents of LD 1207, sponsored by Lisbon Republican Rep. Dale Crafts, wonder how many lawmakers will be willing to stand alongside DeCoster, a company whose track record of labor and public health violations triggered legislation in 1975 and 1997.

“If ever there was a facility that needed representation more than any other, it’s this place,” said Matt Schlobohm of the Maine AFL-CIO.

Crafts and GOP members on the panel argued that the problems at DeCoster had subsided and that the existing laws unfairly target the company.

“There’s been no violations in 10 years,” Crafts said. “I would say that the operation has really improved its ability to operate, conditionwise and everything. That’s why we don’t see as much accusations and complaints as we’ve seen in the past.”

The Legislature in 1997 gave DeCoster workers the right to unionize. That right is typically not afforded to agricultural workers because of the potential effects of a strike on perishable products.

At the time of the legislation, however, supporters argued that DeCoster was more factory than farm and that workers there should be afforded those same rights.

That reasoning also prompted the Legislature to require DeCoster to pay its workers overtime and a minimum wage in 1975.

Federal law doesn’t allow agricultural workers to earn overtime.

Crafts’ original version of LD 1207 would have repealed the overtime provision. That proposal riled labor and immigrant advocates during a heated public hearing held earlier this month.

Prior to Friday’s work session, Crafts amended the bill to strike the overtime provision, saying DeCoster didn’t intend to stop paying overtime anyway.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” Crafts said.

It’s not clear why the overtime repeal was included in the original bill. When asked, Crafts said only that the entire bill was designed to stop legislation targeting the company.

“The thing is, it really worries me that we can select a business and legislate laws just for one individual,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely unconstitutional, in my opinion.”

He added, “It’s a very scary path to go down. In America we’re supposed to be free.”

Some lawmakers have argued that the collective bargaining portion of the law that would allow workers to join a union wasn’t necessary because workers at DeCoster have never organized.

Schlobohm didn’t buy that argument.

“If we follow that logic, someone who hasn’t protested in 10 years would lose their free speech rights,” he said. “Someone who hasn’t carried a gun in five years would lose their Second Amendment rights.”

Workers at DeCoster failed to unionize in 1997.

Schlobohm said there were a lot of reasons why workers didn’t succeed.

“It’s an incredibly intimidating work environment,” he said. “The employees there feel very vulnerable to start with. They’re coming from incredibly long distances. There’s a climate of fear there. And, you know, there was large amounts of intimidation during the campaign in 1997.”

During the public hearing earlier this month, several former DeCoster workers claimed that atmosphere still exists.

Although DeCoster brought one employee to testify on its behalf, he later told the Labor Committee that he didn’t know the proposed bill could take away his right to earn overtime.

Francisco Gonzalez, a Lewiston resident and supervisor at DeCoster, told the panel he worked between 70 and 80 hours a week.

“I’m confused now,” Gonzalez said then. “I did not know what this was about.”

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