DeCoster labor bill may be hung up in Legislature because of workplace violations

Posted May 26, 2011, at 10:15 a.m.
Last modified May 26, 2011, at 10:30 a.m.

AUGUSTA — A bill that eliminates workers’ right to unionize at the DeCoster-owned Quality Egg farm in Turner continues to languish in the House of Representatives, possibly because of workplace violations.

The bill, LD 1207, was slated for a preliminary House vote on two occasions this week but was delayed each time.

To what extent, if any, the delay indicates waning support for the proposal is unclear. However, this week, a key Republican announced he would oppose the legislation amid evidence contradicting Quality Egg’s testimony during an April 15 public hearing that it had shown “an exemplary record of clean, safe and pleasant workplaces” since 2001.

Documents from the U.S. Department of Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Administration tell a different story. The records show that the Turner facility committed “serious” and “willful” violations as recently as 2008 and other infractions as recently as 2009.

Discovery of the violations this week prompted Sen. Christopher Rector, R-Thomaston, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Labor Committee, to withdraw his support after voting for the bill in a work session.

Rector told the Sun Journal that he changed his mind after the violations surfaced in a May 24 report published in Down East magazine.

Several of the infractions were provided to the committee during the April 15 public hearing, including a timeline of DeCoster’s checkered history that was published in a 2010 story in The Atlantic.

“In the testimony to our committee we were led to believe that there had been no violations over the last decade at any of the DeCoster facilities,” Rector said. “Unfortunately, it came to my attention since then that there in fact have been a variety of violations … . I just feel uncomfortable with the position we’d taken.”

Rector said he planned to vote against the bill in the Senate and, if necessary, to speak against it from the floor.

Last month, Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon, repeated the company’s claim that it hadn’t had “violations in the last 10 years.” Crafts acknowledged Tuesday that his statement was incorrect. However, he said Rector and others focusing on DeCoster’s violation history “missed the point” of his bill.

Crafts said the bill was designed to “right a wrong” done by the Legislature when it passed a bill in 1997 giving DeCoster workers the right to unionize.

Collective bargaining rights aren’t typically afforded to agricultural workers because of the potential effects of a strike on perishable products. However, supporters of the 1997 legislation argued that the Turner plant was more factory than farm and that workers there should be afforded similar rights.

Crafts believes existing law unfairly targets DeCoster. He said penalties assessed by OSHA and other agencies showed that it wasn’t necessary to punish DeCoster further.

“I don’t care to know about the violations at DeCoster egg farms,” he said. “I think if [Jack DeCoster] violates anything, they ought to prosecute to the end. That’s not the issue.”

He added, “Sometimes up here people choose their decisions over politics. Obviously, if I was up here to get re-elected, I would never have put a DeCoster egg bill in. … Whatever the consequences are politically is fine with me.”

Some Republicans indicated this week that the DeCoster bill wasn’t a priority.

Opponents have wondered whether lawmakers would stand alongside DeCoster, a company with a track record of worker and public health violations that spans decades. In Maine, DeCoster’s history prompted lawmakers to enact legislation in 1975 and 1997.

The 1975 legislation required DeCoster to pay workers overtime and a minimum wage. Crafts’ bill originally sought to repeal that requirement, but it later was amended to only remove the collective bargaining rights that the Legislature awarded in 1997.

Workers at DeCoster attempted to organize in 1997, but that effort failed.

Nonetheless, labor advocates said DeCoster workers should be allowed to organize.

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

Schlobohm didn’t buy the argument that the collective bargaining provision wasn’t needed since DeCoster workers haven’t tried to organize since 1997.

“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.”

Schlobohm described the atmosphere at the facility as “incredibly intimidating.”

That description was backed by former workers who testified during the heated April 15 public hearing.

Crafts said Wednesday that he was unsure when his bill would be taken up by House.

See more news from the Sun Journal at http://www.sunjournal.com/.

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